Debt and Consequence

Broad Street - North of Spruce Street, December 21, 1915. (PhillyHistory.org)

Broad Street – North of Spruce Street, December 21, 1915. (PhillyHistory.org)

It’s a classic story. Behind a noble and refined façade, (thanks to the designs of Frank Miles Day and Louis Comfort Tiffany) Horticultural Hall on Broad Street was really a house of cards, a palace built on credit.

After an earlier hall on the same site burned in 1893, insurance kicked in $25,000 for a new building. At the start of 1894, according to the History of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, only $26.25 was in the bank.  But Society president, Clarence H. Clark (whose mansion at 42nd and Locust cost $300,000 two decades before) didn’t see a problem; he saw an opportunity. Clark, a banker, engineered a fix in the form of a $200,000 mortgage.

And so with borrowed money “a fine example of Italian Renaissance architecture” as we told last time, rose on Broad Street. Its bronze gates welcomed, its emerald glass awed, its “deep overhanging eaves” impressed. Above those eaves were the finest Spanish tiles. Below them was to be a pièce de résistance of public art, a giant, wraparound mural—one of the largest ever.

The last thing on muralist Joseph Lindon Smith’s mind was his client’s staggering debt. As he planned the job, Smith, faced his own daunting challenges. The up-and-coming artist had recently finished a modest mural in an alcove of the Boston Public Library, and had never taken on a commission this massive—308 feet long and 6 feet high. Nor had Smith ever taken on anything this risky. “It will be executed directly upon plaster and it will be out-of-doors,” worried an art critic at the Inquirer, on April 19, 1896, “two conditions seldom met with in modern wall-painting.”

Plus, Smith wasn’t entirely certain what he wanted to paint. In an interview in the Spring of 1896, he admitted “working upon his design for nearly a year” and still unclear how his mural would play out. There’d be “allegorical and mythological characters, the months, or the seasons and the signs of the zodiac, all having some bearing…upon the building and its use.” There’d be a decorative scheme featuring “the harvest gods, Ceres and Bacchus” and “an almost endless use of garlands” and wreaths. But how would it all come together?

Detail of proposed mural on Horticultural Hall, ca. 1896. ( McLean Library, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society)

As Smith sat at his drawing board feeling the panic rise, he learned the plaster below the eaves wouldn’t be ready for his brush until Fall. What a relief! More time to think! Smith could go on “a special trip to Italy during the summer to renew his acquaintance with the works of the early Italian fresco painters.”

Ah, the life of a struggling artist (with a commission).

Smith did master the challenge and depicted in his own frescoes “the evolution of the vegetable kingdom through four seasons” as Asa M. Steele related in Harper’s Weekly a few years later. “A great scroll also appears in the centre of the main façade, bearing the words “Horticulture” and “Agriculture,” “Sylviculture,” “Viticulture,” and Floriculture.” Between the many small windows “he painted…small panels depicting boys with agricultural tools, and conventional wreaths, and groupings of fruits, flowers, nuts, evergreens and holly.” Smith’s “principal groups depict twelve women typifying the months of the year, each holding in her lap the appropriate sign of the zodiac and accompanied by the patron deity of the season, and arrangements of foliage, fruits and flowers.”

Starting on the south side of the building, Smith’s figures for January and February were accompanied by Janus, the god of new starts, “who received the prayers and husbandmen at the beginning of seed time.” Then came Triptolemus, the demi-god of agriculture, “in his winged chariot drawn by serpents, rides through an awakening landscape, scattering his barley seed on either hand.” March arrived “in wind-tossed draperies;” April “in the tender hues of early spring, carried an inverted vase to symbolize the descent of rain upon the earth.” In between was the figure of Proserpina, daughter of Ceres.

Hort Hall - detail of mural - FLP

Horticultural Hall, ca. 1900 detail. (The Free Library of Philadelphia)

Steele continued: “May is decked in vivid green, against a background of blossoms. June sits wreathed in roses and the bloom of early summer, with garlands strewn about. Flora, the deity of horticulture, and Amor, with drawn bow, formed the remainder of the group. In the center of the front façade Phoebus Apollo sits enthroned in a glory of golden sunbeams, a lyre in his hands. July and August, arrayed in the gorgeous hues of midsummer, and surrounded by fruits and flowers, have Ceres as protectress. The goddess is robed in crimson and gold, and holds a sheaf of wheat. September and October, with Pomona, goddess of fruits, enthroned between them, are surrounded with the rich browns, reds, and yellows of autumn, with a bearing fruit tree in the background, and garlands of corn and grapes. The next panel depicts Bacchus, holding the thyrsus with a wreath of ivy on his head. In the background is the sea, with a marble screen of vines and grapes. The adjacent sky shines with Ariadne’s crown of seven stars; a satyr dances in the foreground. November, looking back toward her system months, and December, lingering in desolation with bowed head, and Boreas [the god of the north wind] blowing winter blasts, complete the series.”

As great a work as it may have been, Smith’s giant mural seemed unphotographable. And for all its wall power, for all its ability for to provide civic ulplift for paraders and boulevardiers on Broad Street, it represented a giant, crushing debt for the directors of the Horticultural Society that wasn’t going away.

So in 1909, three years after the death of Clarence Clark, when a cash offer of “at least $500,000” came in over the transom, the directors saw the light at the end of the tunnel. This offer appeared more appealing than anything designed, built or painted. The buyer would demolish the building but no matter. Finally, the debt would be retired.

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