Page C3.2 . 01 November 2000                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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    Real Dilemma for Tiffany Dream Garden


    The 1.1 million-square-foot (102,000-square-meter) building, with 800,000 square feet (74,000 square meters) of office space, cost the then-unheard of sum of $3 million. It occupies a block at 6th and Walnut, in Philadelphia's historic district adjacent to the grounds surrounding Independence Hall. Edward Bok, a famous designer of the period, was responsible for the interior.

    The mural covers one wall of the Marble Hall, a gleaming testimonial to the views of Curtis. This turn-of-the-century millionaire wrote that the wealthy should not have a monopoly on works of art. He felt that ordinary people had a right to appreciate art "in their workplace and their everyday lives rather than in museums."

    Attempts to sell the mural began in 1997 when building owner Jack Merriam died. He had saved the building from the wrecking ball in the 1980s. He hired the architecture firm of Oldham and Seltz (now Oldham + Partners/OPX) of Washington D.C. to redesign the building at a cost of $82 million.

    Under Merriam's direction, The Curtis Publishing Company became the Curtis Center after the architects turned the core of the building that housed the huge printing press well into a 13,000-square-foot (1200-square-meter), six-story atrium complete with palm trees and a fountain spilling over six kinds of marble arranged to invoke images of Pennsylvania Dutch quilts. The result, for most of the building, is a glossy office and retail space for 65 companies over 12 floors.

    This conversion excluded the Marble Hall on the east end of the building. When the work was completed in 1985, Michael Seltz, a principal in the firm, was quoted as saying: "There isn't another office building in the country with a one-of-a kind, 15 by 49 foot Tiffany glass mosaic in the lobby."

    A walk from the lobby, surrounded by retail shops, to the Marble Hall takes tourists and through a small doorway to another world 75 years older than the first. The change seems to relax visitors who habitually stop, sit on the benches, and look at the mural.

    The Controversy

    The legal dispute began about two years ago when Betty Merriam, the executor of her husband's $119 million estate, tried to remove the mural and sell it for an estimated $9 to $20 million. She claimed hardship.

    A potential buyer withdrew after former Mayor Ed Rendell nominated the mural for status under the local historic preservation code, the first such status for an interior object in the city. The Curtis Building itself had been historically certified long ago. Owners of a locally historically certified building in the city cannot demolish it without applying for a permit.

    The line between architecture and interior art should be a moot point according to Bruce Laverty, the curator of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, a library and museum devoted to the city's architectural history.

    Laverty said there is no question that the mural should not be removed. "It's difficult to imagine why the Dream Garden would not be considered an integral part of the building. If it were removed it would be destroyed,'' he said.

    Barring further appeals, the fate of the Dream Garden will be decided in two courts. This according to Mark Zecca, the attorney from the city's law department. Whether the mural should bear historic recognition at all will be decided by the state commonwealth court.

    An appeal to simply remove the mural without waiting for further legal process will be decided by the Licenses and Inspections appeals board. This board turned down the original application about a year ago. Zecca said no arguments have taken place in the past six months.

    Attorney for the estate, Richard Sprague, said the city could "buy the mural if they want to keep it." He refused to comment further on the pending case.

    Zecca said, "It would be sad if the public were only allowed to have access to their history of art or architecture if a municipality could pay for it. After all, the architecture and art named as historically significant does belong to the public."

    Laverty added: "It's ludicrous to imagine that the mural, the only one of its kind by the Tiffany studios, could be boxed up and transported. It is embedded into the fabric of the building."

    He said the Marble Hall and its Dream Garden personify the ethic of Curtis in believing that working people had a right to art. Destroying the mural would also destroy the essence of the building. "This is not the only case," he said. "Imagine the Rotunda in Washington without the statues. Their removal would result in a definite loss to the building."

    Diane M. Fiske is an architectural writer in Philadelphia.



    ArchWeek Photo

    The Curtis Center's six-story atrium leads visitors to The Dream Garden's Marble Hall.
    Photo: Carol M. Highsith


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