Kevin Riordan: Cherry Hill memorial deserves better

The sculpture was in the old library, but the new site cannot afford to reassemble it, officials say.
The sculpture was in the old library, but the new site cannot afford to reassemble it, officials say. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 06, 2013

After book lover Valerie S. Porter, 13, died in 1966, her parents saw the Cherry Hill Public Library as the perfect place to keep her memory alive.

Their civic-minded family, friends, and supporters raised about $750 to commission a sculpture by George Greenamyer, whose ambitious, abstract piece soared skyward from the bottom of the old library's lower stairwell for 36 years.

Installed in 1968, the sculpture was dismantled, boxed, and stored when that building was demolished in 2004. After nine years, the new library says it has neither the space nor the wherewithal to safely reassemble, reinstall, and maintain the piece.

So it is considering selling the sculpture, or perhaps donating it to someone who would display it again.

"We wanted something that could be enjoyed by the people of Cherry Hill," Valerie's mother, Jennie Porter, says by phone from California, where she has lived since 1976.

"Valerie was an avid reader and a sweetheart," says Porter, 90, who would like to see the sculpture reinstalled at the library - as do a trio of art lovers who have championed the piece for years.

"It belongs on the library grounds," says Sally Callaghan, a former member of the Cherry Hill Sculpture Committee who now lives in Mount Laurel.

She and the writer Sybil Kleinfeld, of California, and Rowan University art history Professor Fred Adelson, who lives in Cherry Hill, say the library should not consider divesting itself of a piece of public art.

But library board president Art Simons says the sculpture's heavy steel components make it a safety hazard, particularly for children.

He also says the estimated $10,000 cost of reassembling and reinstalling the piece could exceed its value and is prohibitive for a library on a "shoestring" budget.

"We're trying to be sensitive. We realize it was a [memorial] donation," adds Simon, a former township mayor and council president. "I read a handwritten letter [Jennie Porter] wrote, and it was heartbreaking . . . but we have a fiduciary responsibility."

With all due respect to Mr. Simons, I don't understand how an original work of art created by a respected sculptor to honor a lost child of Cherry Hill could become such an orphan.

I first saw the sculpture in 1976. It was bolted to a 14-foot wooden pillar, curlicued tendrils of steel suggesting an industrial Jack-in-the-Beanstalk, or a machine-made totem pole.

Impressive, but hardly warm and fuzzy in the way one might imagine a piece made in memory of a deceased child would be.

"It didn't necessarily endear itself as other sculptures might," Adelson notes. (Simons remembers it as "scary.")

"But this piece is very much a part of Cherry Hill's history," Adelson says. "And it was the first public commission for George Greenamyer."

From his Massachusetts studio, Greenamyer, 74, says he derived the "visual language" of his piece from architect Malcolm Wells' design for the library itself. Wells, who died in 2009, often used bold, earthy structural elements.

With its original setting obliterated, "I don't know if [the sculpture] can be properly salvaged, design-wise and site-wise," Greenamyer says.

But the library, he adds, should be "careful" about selling it off.

The sculpture "was unusual, to say the least," Jennie Porter says. "But I had no preconceived notion of what it was going to be. And I was guided by Malcolm Wells, in whom I had tremendous faith."

She adds that the sculpture should continue to be a source of "visual joy" to the people of Cherry Hill, and I agree.

This story deserves a happier ending than "sold."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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