Changing Skyline: The gaping hole at Family Court

Construction on the Family Court building continued last week, with no plans for adding artwork to its interior.
Construction on the Family Court building continued last week, with no plans for adding artwork to its interior. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

The sadly bland new building still lacks the quality art that could redeem it. Why?

Posted: March 03, 2014

Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ron Castille had no trouble coming up with a million dollars to pay Jeff Rotwitt's law firm a finder's fee for identifying the site of Philadelphia's new Family Court.

And when details emerged about Rotwitt's money-grab with the project's developer, it was no stretch for Castille to locate another million to sever the deal. Nor did he stint when he hired a friend to investigate the mess, paying $1 million for fact-finding that was never made public.

Yet somehow Castille can't scrounge together a modest $500,000 to purchase art for the new Family Court at 15th and Arch, the most visible and important government project built in Philadelphia in two decades.

The Philadelphia Art Commission held its nose in 2010 when it approved the design, a stubby high-rise that takes its cues from Penn Center's faceless, 1960s office buildings. But the commission made the sign-off conditional on just one thing: the inclusion of public art to soften the clinical ambience.

The milky-white glass box is now a few months away from completion, and yet no plans have been made to acquire a single work of art for its cheerless white walls. The Art Commission would like to know why, and has sent a letter to Castille, Administrative Judge Kevin Dougherty, who oversees Philadelphia's First Judicial District, and the state building agency, the Department of General Services, asking that question.

The commission declined to release its Jan. 23 letter or Castille's answer, so I inquired directly. I received an equivocal response from Dougherty's office, a legalistic response from DGS and no response at all from Castille or his hired spokesman, Frank Keel.

What's clear is that none of these entities has lifted a finger to develop a plan for outfitting the bland courthouse with anything that might ennoble it with civic dignity.

"The Art Commission feels strongly that a building of this importance, in this location, should feature art prominently," its chairman, Sean Buffington, told me in an interview. Beyond that, it's not clear what the commission, which has been in an assertive mood lately, will do next.

Philadelphia's Family Court, as we know too well, has been the stepchild of the Pennsylvania court system. Although it's where society's most vulnerable - abused women, orphaned children, troubled teens - go in a last-ditch bid for help, their cases have been heard for years in near-slum conditions at a makeshift courthouse on 11th Street, or in Family Court's beautiful, but underfunded, neoclassical palace on Logan Square.

The new building was supposed to provide a consolidated space that was safe and dignified. But the project was hijacked by a multitude of political interests.

We may never learn the full story of how Rotwitt managed to become both the court's property adviser and the project's codeveloper, but we do know the shenanigans occurred under Castille's watch. As chief justice, his office was responsible for managing the project.

As a result of the scandal, chronicled in The Inquirer, the private developers were fired and DGS took over the construction. Castille had to sue to recover $4 million from Rotwitt's firm.

The trouble is that DGS considers itself exempt from city law, including the Art Commission's condition. "When we inherited the project, we made it clear that we are not obligated to pay for the art," DGS spokesman Troy Thompson told me. It took the same stand with the Convention Center addition, leaving it a lifeless and sterile shell.

At Family Court, DGS also is providing only the shell, now estimated to cost $160 million. Everything else, from the judges' benches to copy machines, must be paid for out of the court's pocket.

That includes the art pieces that architects EwingCole had planned to incorporate into the design. At its 2010 presentation to the Art Commission, they suggested they could hang a large wall piece in the lobby, where supervised visitation sessions between children and their estranged parents will be held.

Just as important was their proposal for a large, multilevel piece that was meant to be visible from LOVE Park. Because of the way the courtrooms are organized, corridors are located flush against the building's south wall on floors two to five. When you look through the glass now, you can already see a huge expanse of blank white wall along the corridors.

The only court representative to return my call was Majid Alsayegh, of Alta Management, who serves as Judge Dougherty's construction adviser. He acknowledged that there was no money available for art. (But don't worry, the wooden benches for the judges have been ordered.)

He said that Dougherty was trying to find a low-cost solution. Maybe the Mural Arts Program would contribute a piece, Alsayegh suggested. Failing that, the courts may try to get schoolchildren to contribute some of their drawings.

No offense to either one, but that's not good enough.

Family Court's French-style palace on Logan Square was built at the height of the Great Depression, yet it is packed with frescoes, great canvases - police mentoring teens, mothers caring for small children. Yes, the sunny situations are overly idealized, in that 1930s way.

But when you walk into the building, it's hard not to feel a bit more hopeful. Times were tough during the Depression, but officials understood that art was an expression of compassion, worth spending precious dollars on. Ironically, the preservation of those murals was a condition of the building's transfer to a hotel chain, announced last month.

The architectural quality of the new Family Court is much less than Philadelphia deserves, but art could still redeem this building. Without it, we'll just have blank walls and the memories of the coldhearted greed behind its creation.


ingasaffron@gmail.com

215-854-2213 @ingasaffron

www.inquirer.com/built

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