From Classic to Electric: Art Deco and American Business

(PhillyHistory.org)

The Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Building, 26th and Pennsylvania Avenue. August 8, 1930. (PhillyHistory.org)

Every once in a while, art and life imitate one other, sometimes with interesting results.

Such was evident recently when the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission approved Comcast’s request to replace the GE logo atop 30 Rockefeller Center. In 2011, writers of the comedy TV series 30 Rock predicted as much. What they didn’t predict, and what Comcast isn’t proposing to change, is the permanence of the art at the entrance of the building in mid-town Manhattan. The bas-relief of Wisdom and Knowledge and the statue of Atlas have  long been popular—so much so that they are immovable.

They were the work of Lee Lawrie, a/k/aAmerica’s Machine Age Michelangelo,” a sculptor whose masterpieces are found from New York to Nebraska. In Philadelphia, Lawrie developed the sculptural program for Philadelphia’s Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Building, now part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That project dates from the late 1920s, when corporate America still aped civic America, representing business in classically-inspired allegories and virtues.

To transform the former site of a demolished locomotive roundhouse at 26th and Pennsylvania, Fidelity’s executives chose architects Zantzinger, Borie and Medary and sculptor Lawrie, who steeped the project in the language of legend and history. And in so doing, Fidelity Mutual managed to make the buying and selling of life insurance seem temple-worthy.

Up to then, this A-team of creatives hadn’t dabbled much in insurance. Institutions where civic and social purpose: museums, churches, universities, and government buildings were more their kind of thing. But this project and this company—under the spell of City Beautiful on Philadelphia’s new Parkway—was ambitiously different.

Caption

Fidelity

Frugality

Why not consider insurance in terms of civic duty? Why not dress up the corporate headquarters as a temple to coverage? And it wasn’t enough to carve messages in stone: “IN THE NOBLER LIFE OF THE HOUSEHOLD IS THE NOBLER LIFE OF MANKIND.” And “THE FINEST WORK OF A MANS’ LIFE IS TO OPEN THE DOORS OF OPPORTUNITY TO THOSE DEPENDENT UPON HIM.” But words were only a start. Lawrie made sure his project in buff Indiana limestone repeatedly confirmed that coverage was, indeed, heroic.

As Penny Balkin Bach put it in Public Art in Philadelphia, Lawrie spoke with “gilt squirrels and pelicans, huge stone reliefs of human figures, small suns and moons, and the classical Graces… At the main portal on Fairmount Avenue, two guardian dogs, emblems of fidelity and the company itself, watch sternly. Overhead, rising out of the limestone columns, are giant male and female forms: a father figure (Fidelity) on the left, with a spade as his token; a mother (Frugality) on the right, with a child in her arms. At the figures’ bases are smaller symbols: for the father, a sheaf of grain and a horn of plenty; for the mother, a cradle and a ‘gift tree.’ Elsewhere, friezes, reliefs, and mosaic panels present the ‘twelve labors’ and the ‘seven ages’ of humankind, the cycle of time and many symbols of ‘home and protection’ and the ‘hazards of life.’ Crowning the entrance tower is an ornamental gilt crest with marvelous figures of squirrels, opossums, owls, and pelicans, which represent, respectively, the virtues of thrift, protection, wisdom and charity.”

By 1928, the messages were all in place for those who happened to pass by 26th and Pennsylvania. But the very next year, a few other Philadelphia businessmen, this time architects hired by bankers from the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, envisioned another project that would simultaneously change corporate messaging and the skylines of urban America. In 1932, four, red, 27-foot-high initials in a new font called Futura light were lit up on the rooftop of the bank’s new headquarters at 12th and Market. Philadelphia’s PSFS sign, visible for miles, provided a streamlined, clarified, thoroughly modern message. By 1937, 30 Rock would also be topped by the initials of its owner, RCA. In time, that would change to GE. And now to Comcast. Doubtless, in the great chain of commerce, Comcast’s logo will someday be replaced as well.

Lawrie’s work, we can bet, will remain untouched.

The lesson learned? Ars longa, logo brevis.

Detail 1930 (PhillyHistory.org)

Ornamental gilt crest with owls (wisdom) and an opossum (protection).

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