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A Brush of Genius: Philadelphia's Lenfest Plaza

by Nancy Schneider (January, 2012)

Even though it is an overcast December afternoon, many people are enjoying the newest reclaimed public space in Philadelphia. Lenfest Plaza, located just outside the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and one block north of City Hall, is already a favorite open-air gathering space for students, tourists and center city workers, as a place to take a break outside all year long, without the noise or smell of the car and bus traffic of the streets. The $7.5 million project was partially made possible by a generous gift from Mr. and Mrs. H. F. Gerry Lenfest, with additional financial support from the City of Philadelphia.

A very visible part of the city's various efforts that are working toward taking back city streets for bicyclists and pedestrians, the Plaza, which opened in October 2011, includes a stage, a three-part serpentine bench, mosaic pavers, a platform for temporary sculpture, plantings, displays, lighting, and tables for outdoor dining. There is also space for rotating student exhibitions and a striking public art installation by famed artist Claes Oldenburg. The installation is a 53-foot tall Paint Torch, and it is Philadelphia's fourth large-scale public sculpture art by Oldenburg.

The design consists of a 51-foot high sculpture in the form of a paintbrush, raised at a 60 degree angle as if in the act of painting, with a 6-ft paint glob on the ground below. The sculpture is positioned between PAFA's Historic Landmark Building and the Samuel M.V. Hamilton Buildings. Oldenburg titled the work Paint Torch, merging two ideas in this project: the paintbrush and the torch. He stated that the paintbrush is a good fit for PAFA to "celebrate a place where painting with a brush is really practiced." The torch highlights a moment in history, Philadelphia as the first place of art in the new country.

Construction began on Lenfest Plaza in February, and although it is now open to the public, some finishing touches are still going on, such as the extra-wide pedestrian crossing on North Broad Street. The 24-hour pedestrian court taking over about half a block of Cherry Street (between Broad Street and Carlisle Street), also offers great people watching, a rest spot from sightseeing and a bite to eat from local food vendors, all in a beautiful cultural setting.

Claes Oldenburg's first large-scale public sculpture was the 45-foot high Clothespin created for Philadelphia in 1976, followed up by the Split Button (1981), on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. All are located in public plazas in the City.

"I think it's really perfect," said Hilary Leventis, a secretary visiting from London who has found Philadelphia to be "a mecca for art. It really does demonstrate what the town seems to be known for," she said.

"Cartoony" was how one Old City photographer Ben Riley described The Paint Torch. "But", he added, "I think the pedestrian mall is really nice," he said, "a nice addition to the city."

But a deliveryman had a different reaction: "It's blocking my way down the damn alleyway," he said, "so I can't park here." Ah, yes, a brush of genius!

Lenfest Plaza is at 118-128 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Text by Nancy E. Schneider; photo courtesy of The OLIN Studio