Sculptural Meaning vs. Carved Ornament

The Schuylkill Permanent Bridge High Street [Market St.] Philadelphia. (Free Library of Phila.)

Philadelphia’s first bridge over the Schuylkill River, confidently named “the Permanent Bridge,” wasn’t actually. It took only an hour before the bridge was “totally destroyed, consumed by fire and fallen into the river” one Saturday afternoon in November 1875. Only the masonry piers remained.

Gone was Timothy Palmer’s giant span of wooden trusses set in place in the early years of the century. Gone, too, was Owen Biddle’s roofed and gabled covering, painted and sprinkled with marble dust to create the illusion of stone. And gone were two allegorical sculptures by the “masterly chisel” of William Rush, “recumbent figures embodying Agriculture and Commerce” prominent in the pediments over the covered bridge’s entrances.

Sculpting Ornament on the Market Street Bridge (PhillyHistory.org)

Sculpting Ornament on the Market Street Bridge, September 7, 1932. (PhillyHistory.org)

When installed in 1812, these two elusive sculptures (no images of them survive) completed the bridge. Rush’s figures were far more than ornament, they augmented the functioning bridge, which connected the east and west banks of the Schuylkill, with the symbolism and imagery of the city. Real commerce thrived at the eastern, urban (Center City) side of the bridge. Actual agriculture resided at the western, rural (West Philadelphia) side. Equipped with its allegories, the bridge provided a living link between vision and reality.

From the first, a ship representing commerce and a plow representing agriculture were on the cartouche of the official city seal. More than 120 years after the city’s founding, the actual bridge merged the physical and the symbolic into the real, the here and now. Commerce on the east and Agriculture on the west echoed Philadelphia in theory (as expressed in the city’s coat of arms) and in practice (as played out in the city itself). As citizens utilized the bridge for their livelihoods, they breathed life into the ideal. By joining identity, narrative and urban life, Rush’s sculptures elevated the bridge to a kind of civic theater, a functional version of a meaningful symbol.

Plaster Cast of Model for Bridge over Market St. over Schuylkill River, ca. 1932 (PhillyHistory)

Where else have we seen this merger of citizenship, public space and public art? Look to the sculptural program in City Hall’s courtyard (which we wrote about several years ago). In that case, the pedestrian/citizen/symbol is simultaneously representing, witnessing and expressing the meaning of place. The People animate and complete the sculptural program.

After the Rush allegories burnt, the successive Market Street Bridge would never again regain its deep-set sense of sculptural place. Subsequent sculptures would be decorative afterthoughts, punctuation in limestone. The current Market Street bridge, constructed by the Dravo Contracting Company of Pittsburgh at a cost of nearly $4,000,000, opened on a rainy night in November 1932. On it were carved swags, stylized dolphins, ram heads, lion heads, human heads all impressive additions by talented craftsmen, but baubles bereft of narration and any real civic meaning.

[Sources:  Linda Bantel, William Rush, American Sculptor (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1982); New City Span at Market St. is Dedicated, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 19, 1932.]

Plaster Cast of Model (Lion ) for Market Street Bridge, ca. 1932 (PhillyHistory.org)

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