In defeat for Nutter, 9/11 memorial rejected

An image of the proposed 9/11 memorial that was rejected Wednesday by the Philadelphia Art Commission.
An image of the proposed 9/11 memorial that was rejected Wednesday by the Philadelphia Art Commission. (Phila911.com)
Posted: September 06, 2013

Jeffrey Little, a building contractor with friends in politics, thought he had a great idea for a memorial to honor the first responders to the 9/11 attack. He sketched a design on a napkin and showed it to his friends. They all liked it.

Then he showed it to Mayor Nutter and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady. They liked it, too. Nutter even offered Little a prominent corner of historic Franklin Square to erect the monument.

But the Philadelphia Art Commission hated its design - a cartoonish, half-scale Liberty Bell strung between nine-foot replicas of the Twin Towers - and on Wednesday finally rejected it. The negative vote was a rare defeat for the Nutter administration by one of its own commissions.

Earlier this summer, the commission, concerned about allowing an amateurish design to be placed in one of Philadelphia's iconic parks, had asked Little and his partner on the project, Stephen R. Saymon, to revise the composition and come back when they were done.

They returned Wednesday, but with a design virtually identical to the one they submitted in June.

"I don't see any of the changes," a surprised chairman, Sean T. Buffington, said after Little unveiled a new rendering.

Little retorted that he didn't think much of the commissioners' June critique.

He said he had spent the last several months showing his design to police, firefighters, and other first responders, and the feedback was uniformly positive.

"Everyone likes it as it is right now. That was my rationale for not changing anything," Little explained.

"You have six people who don't like the towers and a whole community that does," he added.

Whatever Little's friends think of the design, it's the job of the six-member commission to vet public art in the city and ensure it meets high design standards.

Commissioner Moe Brooker said Little's design failed on many levels, but most troubling was the mismatch between the memorial's main imagery and its subject matter.

Such memorials are typically designed by artists or architects with experience in public art installations. Little is a construction contractor as well as the son of a former Traffic Court judge and Democratic ward leader, the late Frank "Duke" Little.

Even though the city only just unveiled a memorial to 9/11 last year on the Schuylkill Banks, the Nutter administration approved the site in Franklin Square.

Championing the project in June, Gary Steuer, the city's chief cultural officer, said he was confident that the memorial would sail through the commission with modest "tweaks."

For members to stand their ground "was a real act of courage," said Marsha Moss, who serves on Nutter's Public Art Advisory Committee.

The commissioners stressed that they were only rejecting Little's design, and not the concept of a memorial honoring the police and firefighters who died on 9/11 trying to save people in the World Trade Center.

The proposed monument has drawn harsh responses from the city's design community since the beginning.

"I've seen the design and it's incredibly crude," Mark Brack, associate professor of architecture and interiors at Drexel University, said after the project surfaced this spring.

On Wednesday, the commissioners offered to give Little and Saymon more time to work on the design, but Little demanded a vote. Afterward, he appeared angry and refused to answer a reporter's questions.

Mark McDonald, the mayor's spokesman, acknowledged the vote by saying, "The commission is there to make decisions and do their job, to make tough decisions on occasion. They've acted."

He also noted that Little and Saymon can now appeal to the Licenses and Inspections Review Board.

Brady's office was closed Wednesday and his spokesman could not be reached for comment.


Contact Inga Saffron at ingasaffron@gmail.com, 215-854-2213 or on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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