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August 08, 2023

'Last look' tours of Painted Bride's mosaic mural offered ahead of demolition in the fall

The arts organization's former Old City site is covered in Isaiah Zagar mosaics; the building will be knocked down to make way for apartments

Arts & Culture Murals
Painted Bride murals @PaintedBrideArtCenter/Facebook

Atrium Design Group acquired the former Painted Bride Art Center building, pictured above, in a sale finalized in 2022. The Painted Bride Art Center moved to West Philadelphia the same year.

Fans of Isaiah Zagar's art are preparing to say goodbye to one of his largest pieces — the 7,000-square-foot mosaic mural at the former Painted Bride Art Center building — before the site is demolished by its new owners.

The Philadelphia Magic Gardens, which preserves and promotes Zagar's art, is planning a "last look" tour of the building on Saturday, Aug. 19. Though it is currently sold-out, another event is promised for Sept. 12. There are plans to redevelop the site, at 230 Vine St., into apartments and a restaurant, but the timeline for that construction is unclear.

"We believe we have at least through September before the mural is demolished," Allison Boyle, the marketing and events manager for PMG, said in an email. "As of right now the developer is working with us and will in theory give us enough notice to begin removing elements of it before work begins on the site."

A representative for the city's Department of Licenses & Inspections confirmed there currently is no demolition permit for 230 Vine St. A zoning permit for new construction and partial demolition was issued on Aug. 24, 2021.

The building was occupied by the Painted Bride Art Center from 1982 through 2022. When the nonprofit announced plans to sell its space in 2017, it set off a yearslong battle to preserve the building's facade, which is covered in ceramic, glass and colored grout. A 2018 bid to add the site to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places failed in a 5-4 vote.

Atrium Design Group bought the building for $3.85 million last year. It has floated a number of failed proposals for the space, including a plan for 16 luxury townhomes and a design which would've constructed new housing over the existing building. The latter proposal was approved by the city, but a group of Old City neighbors successfully appealed, protesting that the plans would have exceeded the neighborhood's 65-foot height limit.

The latest design calls for a 6-story, H-shaped building outfitted with cement and metal panels. Pieces of the existing mural would be salvaged and installed on the first floor, according to city documents published earlier this summer.

But PMG has repeatedly expressed concern that safely removing the art will be difficult, if not impossible.

"Our preservation team has identified all the significant elements of the mural that we would like to try to save, however we anticipate not being able to save all of them," Boyle said. "The mural is adhered pretty strongly to the wall, so we foresee losing some tiles to breakage when we remove them.

"Currently the plan is to incorporate some of those saved pieces into a new mosaic mural on the outside of the building that would pay homage to the destroyed mural, and then we would work with the developer to create an entirely new mural inside the courtyard area of the building. The vast majority of the current mosaic mural, however, will be lost."

The mosaic, titled "The Skin of the Bride," was originally installed by Zagar in 1991, the same year he began work on the Magic Gardens, his largest public work. Looping script over the building's Vine Street entrance reads, "The Bride has many suitors, even," while the entrance on Bodine Street reads, "Painted Bride" and "La Novia Pintada."

Zagar has over 220 murals in Philly, many of which are concentrated along South Street, where Zagar took up residence in 1968 after a mental breakdown. Heavily influenced by folk art he observed during his Peace Corps stint in Peru, he began creating mosaics as a form of therapy, breaking apart discarded materials like liquor bottles and reassembling them into colorful murals.

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