A mural is up against a wall

Posted: May 27, 2007

Philadelphia has been called the "city of murals," and with good cause: The Mural Arts Program has painted more than 2,700 since 1984, often with the redirected talents of ex-graffitists.

But to the city Historical Commission, there are murals and there are murals. And the thing about The Death of Venus, Dee Chhin's allegorical fantasy, is that it was painted in a historic district - without a permit or Mural Arts Program backing.

So unless the owner of the property at 410 S. 15th St. prevails on appeal, The Death of Venus will disappear under a coating of brick-red paint.

On Tuesday, the Department of Licenses and Inspections' Board of License and Inspection Review set Aug. 14 to hear an appeal to preserve the mural.

"I can't believe what they're making of this," said Michael Sher, a Center City real estate broker who manages the six-unit apartment building for owner Philip Steinfeld. "You might think it's the Alberto Gonzalez hearing."

Harry J. Sher, Michael's brother and his attorney in the appeal, said he believed it was the first time the city had moved against a wall mural, even one put up without a permit.

Michael Sher said he had commissioned the mural to dissuade graffitists from tagging the building's north wall on narrow Waverly Street.

He hired Cambodian emigre Chhin, a transsexual then known as Wesley Chhin, and in 2001 work began. Chhin said she had worked spontaneously, mixing androgynous forms, elements of Roman myth, and references to masterpieces such as The Birth of Venus before ending with a stylized portrait of the aspiring artist herself.

People noticed. Soon, Peirce College officials, whose campus is across 15th Street, learned that the work was being done without a permit and complained to the Historical Commission.

The building is in the Rittenhouse-Fitler Residential Historic District, so named because of its "dense mix of distinguished residential and institutional, architect-designed and vernacular buildings woven into a single comprehensive and coherent district."

That designation, created in 1995 to preserve the character of the old residential neighborhood, means an owner may not alter a building's exterior without Historical Commission approval.

The four-story brick townhouse at 410 S. 15th is not historic, but it does have unusual architectural details, such as a corbeled, or stepped, chimney that rises above the mural.

The home was built, according to city records, about 1850. A century later, it was converted into six apartments. In the early 1950s, two apartments were turned into offices for Norris, Schmidt, Green, Harris & Higginbotham, then the only African American law firm in the city, two of whose partners - A. Leon Higginbotham and Clifford Scott Green - became federal judges. Later, it was reconverted to all residential use.

The mural has survived long enough for the controversy to flare anew because of "interim approval," one of those vagaries of Philadelphia law.

Instead of legalizing the mural or ordering it removed, the Historical Commission deadlocked, 5-5, in February 2002.

When the commission did not act in the required 60 days, L&I issued a permit. Peirce College appealed to L&I's review board, which sent the case back to the commission.

In September 2002, the commission decided the mural could remain "for a period not to exceed four years." After four years, the commission ruled, the mural would be painted over or Sher could apply for a new extension.

Peirce College chose not to appeal further, and in the last four years The Death of Venus seemed to grow on people.

Public opposition evaporated. Tourists began photographing the mural. The Mural Arts Program added Chhin's work to its tour.

Even Michael J. Lewis, chairman of the art department at Williams College in Massachusetts and an authority on architect Frank Furness, who once lived a block away, weighed in. Lewis called the mural a "lyrical grace note in this neighborhood" and predicted that Furness would have approved that his old neighborhood was still "an incubator of living art."

Lyrical grace note or not, The Death of Venus did not survive two motions at the commission's Jan. 12 meeting.

Commissioner Scott Wilds, one of four supporters on the 10-member panel, argued that the commission can decide that "historical accretions" are significant, and that Chhin's mural had achieved historic significance.

But chairman Michael Sklaroff said that "41/2 years is not history" and that the mural detracted from the original architecture at 410 S. 15th.

Jane Golden, director of the Mural Arts Program, said she respected the Historical Commission and its role but urged the panel to rethink its ruling "if the community overwhelmingly wants to keep the mural and if the building owner agrees."

"It is always heartbreaking to lose a mural," Golden added. "That's why I always urge artists to work through the Mural Arts Program. We have had 20 years' experience working with the community, and we have had to deal with any number of obstacles."

Chhin, 35, who came to the United States with her mother in the early 1980s, was despondent about the possible destruction of the mural.

"I didn't have sketches to work from," she said. "I just worked on it as I was going, and it expresses my inner self."

Chhin, whose father died before she was born, said the mural was also a tribute to her uncle, a father figure and painter who was decapitated before her eyes by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

"This is just killing me," she said of the controversy. "If they paint red over it, what are they doing? It's just a blank spot to write graffiti on."

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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