Garden pops up at abandoned Walnut Street lot

In a vacant lot located diagonally from Rittenhouse Square at 19th and Walnut, Susannah Henderson, a volunteer from Shire Pharmaceuticals, plants in the pop-up garden. Ed Hille / Staff Photographer
In a vacant lot located diagonally from Rittenhouse Square at 19th and Walnut, Susannah Henderson, a volunteer from Shire Pharmaceuticals, plants in the pop-up garden. Ed Hille / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 23, 2012

Until two weeks ago, 1905-1915 Walnut St. was a place of weedy abandon wildly out of sync with the rest of the neighborhood.

Located diagonally across from Rittenhouse Square, the city's most popular park, the lot's been vacant since 1994, when the old Eric movie theater complex burned down. Nothing's happened since, unless you're counting negatives: graffiti on the adjoining buildings, soil cut with old bricks, insulation and junk, and death-defying tufts of what purists call native plants and the rest of us know as weeds.

All of it fenced and forbidding.

Now comes relief — delight even — if only for four months.

For the second year in a row, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has designed a temporary "pop-up garden" to bring color, activity, and visitors to a place that, as the society's president Drew Becher puts it, "people might think has a curse on it."

"It's in a high-traffic area, in one of the best neighborhoods, and it's been vacant for a very long time," he says, suggesting that putting a temporary garden here "sort of repositions the property in a much more positive light."

The Walnut Street garden, one of almost 300 sites suggested to PHS via e-mail or Facebook, opens Friday and closes in mid-October. It's notably different from its predecessor.

The 2011 pop-up was a sophisticated urban farm at 20th and Market Streets, on the site of the old Penn Center Inn, which was torn down in 1990. It covered ¾ acre, cost $80,000, and took two months to build.

The 2012 version is smaller and simpler, with more artistic and interpretive elements. It's ? acre, has a thrifty budget of $19,600, and took only two weeks to put together.

"Last year was over the top. That was really a flower show out at 20th and Market," acknowledges Patricia Schrieber, PHS' education director, who believes this year's smaller scale has a big up side: "You can show people you can garden anywhere, and you can do it with more limited resources, which I think can inspire people."

Kim Pierce can tell you that until now, the lot has inspired only complaints.

"Tourists come in and ask why that property is abandoned, so for us, a garden is very exciting," says Pierce, website coordinator at Born Yesterday, a specialty children's shop two doors down.

The garden's "bring-everyone-to-the-table" theme is a riff on the "farm to table" concept. And as they did last year, pop-up designers are "repurposing" parts of PHS' exhibit at the Philadelphia International Flower Show, such as the reclaimed-wood walls and the raised beds of "edibles and ornamentals," which is a popular trend in home gardening.

The mixed beds — eight feet wide — are in the front one-third of the lot. They ring a four-foot-wide, 64-foot-long cedar table — actually, eight tables that appear as one — shaded by five orange umbrellas and flanked by 60 chairs.

(PHS put out a call for unwanted wooden dining room chairs, without cushions or wicker, that could be recycled and painted bright colors. Friends and colleagues dove into attics, cellars, thrift shops, and even curbside trash, but as of Tuesday, they'd collected only 42.)

"People can bring their lunch to the table and sit outside and enjoy the food, the garden, and the camaraderie. You might even meet someone you don't know," says Barrett Robinson, PHS' vice president of operations.

The rest of the lot, which runs along Moravian Street, is something else entirely: a meadow with those "native plants" mentioned earlier — things like verbascum and small-flowered asters — left relatively untouched save for a "meandering path" mowed through it.

"We all have lots of mowed lawns and tree canopy. This allows people to get into an environment they may not get into ordinarily. It's a vacant-lot meadow," says David Elliott, PHS landscape architect and the garden's lead designer.

(Gardeners know this old trick: Make a path through a messy patch and it suddenly looks cared for!)

Art is a big component this year, and it'll continuously unfold as the summer goes on.

Mat Tomezsko, a Tyler School of Art graduate who works with the Mural Arts Program, says he's thinking of painting a "mural-type thing" on some stitched-together burlap bags he found in PHS' warehouse. "It would be like a giant canvas and I could make a large painting to hang on the wall to be installed in July," he says, emphasizing the notion that if the artistic landscape keeps changing, visitors will come back more than once.

Tomezsko, who typically works with acrylics and spray paint, describes the colors he's chosen for the chairs and other garden art as "a lot of violets and purples, then highlights of vibrant greens and oranges and blues, sort of like an evening sky with little bolts of bright color."

And speaking of "repurposing," itself a popular trend in home gardening, Tomezsko is creating art out of sections of metal spine from the 2012 flower show's "orchid wave," the undulating, orchid-covered structure that extended overhead at the show's entrance.

"I promise it'll be really good," Tomezsko says.

The neighbors are counting on it.

Harry Sweeney, board president of Rittenhouse Plaza Inc., a luxury co-op at 1901 Walnut, says his building will be supplying water and electricity to the pop-up, which "can only be to our benefit.

“We're happy to do it. Until fall, we'll have this garden that will beautify the neighborhood," he says, adding that everyone is hoping that a deal to develop the property will come through soon.

The lot's owner, Castleway Properties, did not respond to a request for comment.

At a couple of junctures, it appeared a deal was imminent.

Not long after the 1994 fire, a new movie multiplex was proposed with a restaurant and 600-car parking garage, but neighbors objected. A more recent plan to build a swanky condominium tower ran into the Great Recession.

So it's no wonder the buzz started as soon as PHS showed up.

"What's this going to be — a Super Fresh?" asks Margie Foley, owner of Centerpoint Pilates at 1719 Chestnut St., who's out doing errands. Supermarket disappointment quickly turns to garden enthusiasm.

"I think it's interesting that you can leave part of it a meadow and just let nature be," Foley muses.

Again and again, Robinson explains the pop-up idea to passersby, and answers the inevitable question: What happens when the garden goes away?

"The lot goes back to the way it was before," he says.

That's the story over at 20th and Market, where more than 6,000 people came to see PHS' first pop-up last year. Now it's back to being just another vacant lot, albeit in the heart of Center City. Nothing popping up there but weeds.

Contact Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

For information about the PHS pop-up garden, go to www.PHSonline.org.

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