Maxfield Parrish and Dream Garden: Art, Curses, Love and Politics
By Thom Nickels
Recently, I gave a talk at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts on the history of Philadelphia’s famous mural, Dream Garden, located in the lobby of the Curtis Building on Washington Square. The story is a fascinating one.
The story begins with a man named Edward Bok. In 1887, Bok became an advertising manager at Scribner’s Magazine. Two years later, he was at the Curtis Building on Philadelphia’s Washington Square as editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Bok transformed the magazine from a fluffy woman’s magazine into a best-selling publication that campaigned for women’s suffrage, pacifism, and the protection of the environment.
Because Bok believed that good art should find a place in public buildings, he asked Cyrus Curtis of Curtis Publishing if he would include a mural in what was then the new Curtis building.
Bok wasn’t thinking of the lobby, at least not yet, but of the large public dining room on the building’s top floor. He hired Fred Maxfield Parrish to paint a series of seventeen panels between the windows there.
The five year long project resulted in panels depicting a series of gardens with youths and maidens frolicking in colorful costumes.
Bok then turned his attention to a large blank white wall in the lobby of the Curtis Building. The wall measured over one thousand square feet. The space seemed to call for a mural, much the same way that many outdoor spaces today call to Jane Golden and the Mural Arts Project. Bok wanted to find another artist, and rather than re-employ Parrish, which would have been the logical thing to do, he looked elsewhere, as if trying to find someone better. He traveled to London and visited with English artist Edwin A. Abbey. Although Abbey was working on a project for the capitol building in Harrisburg, the two men struck a deal. Abbey was given the okay to paint anything he wanted to paint for the Curtis Center. Abbey’s idea was a theme based on “The Grove of Academe,” with Plato and his disciples lounging around in philosophical ecstasy.
Bok returned to America, but the very day that Abbey started the project in London, he fell over dead, as if cursed by a competing artist’s voodoo spell.
Bok then went on a talent scout hunt and found a Wilmington artist named Howard Pyle. Pyle was a good choice because he also happened to know a lot about Plato. But the hoped for connection never came about because when Bok tried to telephone the artist at his Wilmington home, he was told that Pyle had just died an hour earlier while traveling in Italy.
Sometimes life is like that, unpredictable, cruel and only sometimes fair.
When a third artist, Boutet de Monvel, a famous decorative master, agreed to do the project, Bok invited Monvel to Philadelphia to inspect the space at the Curtis building but almost immediately after arrangements were made, Monvel died in Paris.
Now it was time for Bok, who was beginning to feel cursed, to take stock. He started to think collectively. He asked six of the leading mural artists in the county to submit a full color mural proposal on any subject of their choosing. The six anonymous submissions were then submitted and analyzed by a panel of judges. But this time the curse manifested itself in the form of six blatant rejections.
He then remembered a glass mosaic curtain by Louis C. Tiffany he’d once seen in Mexico City’s Municipal Theatre. He recalled the look of favrile glass set in cement and how that produced a marvelous luminosity. Bok contacted Tiffany and got him to agree to a partnership but they still needed an artist to provide the preliminary sketch.
Bok went back to Parrish and asked him to come up with a sketch for Tiffany despite the fact that Parrish had never worked with glass or mosaics. Parrish’s preliminary drawing was approved.
Six months of planning and thirty skilled artisans and over one million pieces of glass later, Dream Garden was given a New York exhibition where it was viewed by over seven thousand people. Art critics at the time were thrilled: they said the mural went way beyond the limited expression of a painted canvass.
It took six months for the mural to be disassembled in New York and then reassembled in Philadelphia.
Parrish was born in 1870 in Maryland into a family of Quaker physicians. He went to Haverford College but then transferred to PAFA in 1892. In 1894, he got his first commission to paint the Old King Cole mural in the new Mask and Whig Club. After that, success came to him easily. Once he became a seasoned artist he called himself “a mechanic who loved to paint.”
His first magazine cover illustration commission was in 1895, and from then on it was a roller coaster ride.
A passion for gardening caused Parrish to insist that a reflecting pool be placed in front of Dream Garden when it was installed in the Curtis Center. His idolization of youth in Italianate landscape settings seemed to reflect aspects of his romantic life.
He had two love affairs of note, both with much younger women, while maintaining his status of a married man. Sue Lewin was a 16 year old farm girl when Parrish and his wife employed her to look after their two children. Parrish was 32 or 33 at the time, an age difference that in today’s world would almost certainly catapult his name into a scandalous Philly.com breaking news headline. Lewin became Parrish’s model, but she was no random castaway. A journalist once asked Lewin if there was something to her association with the artist and she said, “I’ll have you know that Mr. Parrish has never seen my bare knee.” Sometimes political white lies are necessary, because the exact opposite of this proved to be true when, sometime after both their deaths, workers in Parrish’s Plainfield, New Hampshire home found revealing photos Parrish had taken of Lewin. Lewin remained with Parrish until his 90th birthday when she asked him to marry her. When he refused to do that, Lewin went off and married somebody else.
Another love, Nancy Roelker, was just 21 years old when she met the 66 year old Parrish in 1936. Parrish’s letters to Roelker survive, but Parrish destroyed Nancy’s letters to him, fearing a scandal.
In the early 20th century, almost every home in America had a Maxfield Parrish print. Parrish’s work saturated the market. He was Andy Warhol before there was an Andy Warhol. He did covers for Life, Collier’s, and Harper’s Weekly Magazines, posters and ads for Hires Root Beer and General Electric. He was commissioned to do murals for office buildings and hotels. In a way, his work—canvasses depicting eternal blue skies—reflected the Age of Innocence, although his popularity began to decline in the 1930s. And it really sunk after WW II.
In the beginning of the 20th century, he was as popular as Van Gogh is today. After WW II, American art began to be noticed on the world stage, and Parrish became known as mainly an illustrator, banished by art critics to second fiddle status. Norman Rockwell, who once had a sustained artistic legacy and even a museum near Washington Square, suffered a similar fate—Rockwell, in fact, considered Parrish to be an artistic mentor.
Until the summer of 1998, Dream Garden rested comfortably in the lobby of the Curtis Building, attracting tens of thousands of visitors who would view it without fanfare and then shuffle off to view Independence Hall or the Liberty Bell. It was just one more nice Philly attraction. Dream Garden was still attracting visitors despite the fact that Parrish’s artistic reputation had been demoted by those “art scholar squirrels”. Dream Garden in the 40s, 50s, and beyond was pretty much taken for granted in a city already filled with a lot of art.
In the late 1990s, before the proposed sale of the mural was announced in the press, I worked in the Curtis Building and can say that many people who worked there at that time knew next to nothing about Dream Garden. The Dream Garden lobby was mostly regarded as a pretty walk-through area where one might only occasionally glance at the body contours of a blue mosaic nymph or naughty satyr. There were no adoring crowds, no multiple clicks of cameras. Before the 1998-Steve Wynn controversy, Dream Garden was another “taken-for-granted Philly treasure,” another addition to a list that ranged from historic houses to personalities.
Dream Garden moved to center stage in July of 1998 when it was announced that an anonymous buyer wanted to remove it from the lobby of the Curtis Building. This was breaking news, and attracted considerably more attention than what passes as breaking news today. The impending sale was the result of the actions of Elizabeth C. Merriam, of Wynnewood, wife of real estate developer John W. Merriam, an early Gerry Lenfest-like figure who gave millions to area institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, University of the Arts, PAFA and Bryn Mawr College. Mr. and Mrs. Merriam lived in a Victorian mansion worth upwards of 119 million called ‘Maybrook,’ Mr. Merriam, who died in 1994, left a will specifying the sale. Later, Elizabeth would tell the press, “All I wanted to do was carry out his [Mr. Merriam’s} intentions.”
When a friend who worked with me in the Curtis Building suggested that we do something about the sale, we tried to decide what that something would be. We were sitting in a café near the Warwick Hotel and came up with the idea of a 1960s style protest with hand made placards. We would walk back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the Curtis Building from noon to 1 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday until the crisis was resolved.
The next day we bought flagpoles and duct tape, printed flyers and designed the protest signs. Our first day of protest was to be July 27. We told some people about the demonstration but not too many because we didn’t want to be talked out of it. Several people we told spoke up and told us, “It’s a done deal. The situation is hopeless.”
In some ways it seemed like a ludicrous idea; two people do not a demonstration make. Or do they? On the afternoon of the first protest, we were driven to the site by a friend, who did not stick around to see what would happen. As I wrote in ‘Coming together to keep a ‘Dream’ alive,’ for The Inquirer, “…Our two person protest attracted immediate attention. Cars honked; tourists in horse-drawn carriages asked for fliers; Curtis Center office workers, couples, artists, students, kids of bicycles, elderly couples, parking meter attendants and others told us how shocked they were at the sale.”
Many asked what they could do. We told them to come to the protests on Wednesday or Friday. By the end of the first protest, scores of people had promised to come Wednesday with friends. During that first two-person protest, we attracted the attention of Inquirer photographer Peter Tobia. The next day the picture of the demo appeared on page one of The Inquirer.
I’d given Tobia my phone number as the contact number for the Arts Defense League, the name we decided to call our group. That Tuesday, July 28th was a watershed moment. My phone did not stop ringing. Many callers were from outside the city, and nearly every caller wanted to know what they could do to help.
The second protest attracted nearly 70 people, plus a large chunk of the news media and the city’s civil disobedience squad. People helped with the petitions and promised to bring more friends to Friday’s demonstration. Suddenly the idea of keeping Dream Garden in the city seemed a very real possibility. We expected over 200 at Friday’s demonstration, but then Mayor Rendell suddenly announced at a news conference that Steve Wynn had backed out of the deal. Dream Garden would not be broken up into pieces or sections and shipped to a casino.
We collected almost 700 signatures during that 3-day span. My friend and I were shuffled in and out of TV studios—Fox News, Channel 48, NBC 10, Channel 6 and 35. It was through the roof even if there was no WHYY or Marty Moss-Coane. A few television interviews were conducted in front of my apartment on Pine Street, and with each broadcast more people wanted to help solidify the Arts Defense League. There were other art works in the city that needed saving, we felt. Some of the people who joined us envisioned a new organization along the lines of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia with a Board of Directors, a President, Secretary and Treasurer. They asked to be given something to do while taking it upon themselves to write politicians and city agencies as ADL representatives. Get your photo and phone number published on page one of The Inquirer as the co-founder of a new organization, and see how quickly people flock to you with their own ideas about how the organization should be run. What was once so manageable—a simple two-person consensus—was slowly morphing into a large committee where dissenting views always threaten to hamper progress or bring about schism.
A reporter from People Magazine telephoned me one night at my job in the Curtis Center, and said he wanted to interview me for the magazine. This created an exciting opportunity but in the end proved to be a disaster, because his wish to interview only me made it necessary for me to tell him that my friend and I were in this together. So while he did eventually interview both of us in an Old City restaurant, when I told my friend about the initial request of a single interview this set off a chain reaction of suspicion and distrust that in the end got this marvelous opportunity---a full feature in People —canned.
As a result of the protest and the mayor’s action, on July 29, 1998 the Historical Commission notified the Merriam estate its intention to designate Dream Garden as an historic object under the City of Philadelphia’s historic Preservation ordinance.
The Merriam estate appealed the historic designation, and so began three years of very costly litigation. In 2001, the Pew Charitable Trusts agreed to provide 3.5 million for purchase of the mural, as three of the 4 beneficiaries of the Merriam estate transferred their respective interests to PAFA.
PAFA then agreed to keep Dream Garden in the city, promising to use its “best efforts” to keep it in its site in the Curtis Building.
Until 2001, our group attended numerous hearings and testified at Historical Commission meetings, although as time went on-- and as heavier organizations with a board of directors weighed in--references to the Coalition for Philadelphia Art seemed to diminish. CPA eventually folded, a victim of the passage of time. Today, of course, I’m less than amused when I read references to that early grassroots effort to safeguard Dream Garden. I’m thinking about minimalist references to our efforts like—petition gatherers, a group of demonstrators or even time-warp phrases like, “the public also protested the sale of Dream Garden.”
It is important to remember that the public did not also oppose the sale of Dream Garden, but that they were the first to protest the sale, and as such, were the ones to draw in the… politicians, who came later.
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