Philly has a tough exterior, but its actual insides are as sweet and soft as chocolate nougat. The City of Brotherly Love has a thriving art scene, with works as highbrow as the masterpieces in the Museum of Art, and as relatable as the Instagram-perfect street art scrawled on building walls by budding virtuosos. One of Philadelphia’s greatest artistic traditions, although it may not be the one that automatically comes to mind, is mosaic art.
The craft of putting together a visual display with tiny pieces of cut or broken glass is a heritage that came to us with the overwhelming wave of Italian immigration in the 19th century. These new Americans brought over the art of adorning their homes with the shining glass pieces that they call smalti, and which we today call “tesserae.” From small pieces they painstakingly put together murals, mirrored ceramic pieces, and even windows. Once residents started noticing this art, they requested it for their homes and workplaces. Some historic buildings standing today still bear the original, hand-pieced artwork by mosaic masters like Nicola D’Ascenzo, who decorated the John Wanamaker building, now a Macy’s, in the heart of Center City to the west of City Hall.
You can see the beauty of mosaic all over Center City, if you look hard enough. Congregation Rodeph Shalom, on Broad Street, is the oldest Ashkenazic synagogue in this hemisphere. The imposing Byzantine exterior is stunning, but what’s inside will take your breath away: mosaic work in gold and blue adorning the soaring arches and skylit dome. The Curtis Building at 6th and Walnut is graced by a mosaic mural entitled The Dream Garden, all done in small fragments of Tiffany glass. If you hop over to the Business District, examine One Penn Center for two mosaics constructed within recent years: Galla Placidia in Philadelphia is dedicated to oldest preserved mosaic in the world, while its counterpart, Topkapi Pullman, is a tribute to the railroads rendered in Art Deco design.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about mosaic art in Philadelphia without name-checking the Magic Gardens of Washington Square West. A little weird, a little psychedelic, and yet indescribably beautiful, this living, permanent art installation was the work of Isaiah Zagar, a local celebrity for his joyful, quirky mosaic art first around his neighborhood of South Street, and eventually throughout Bella Vista, East Passyunk, and Queen Village. On what was once two vacant, adjacent properties grown to seed with scraggly tall grass, dirt, and litter, Zagar and his wife, Julia, built the Magic Gardens. Part maze, part park, every inch of the Gardens is covered in tessarae. It’s easy to think that the placement of the glass was random, because, in many places, it was. Yet, through the Zagars’ genius, out of the swirling patterns of color, faces, animal shapes, and gorgeous designs emerge.
Zagar’s specific brand of mosaic is in full bloom in the Magic Gardens, where shards of broken mirror, glass bottles, and recycled kitchen tiles share space with bicycle wheels, plates and bowls, and Latin American art collected by the Zagars during their world travels. The Magic Gardens are immersive, with the ground, half-crumbled brick walls, and curious underground cave encrusted on every inch with color and pattern. From Thrillist:
While exploring the gardens, look out for what Zagar calls “blobs,” or masses of colorful plaster with different objects pressed into them that he would then mount on a surface like one big tessera. “He also made his own tiles using molds or lace doilies to create patterns in the clay,” said Allison Boyle, events and marketing manager at the PMG, which opened officially to the public in 2008. “These doily tiles are a great way to distinguish his murals from other mosaic artists’ work.”
General admission to the Magic Gardens is $10 per person, which can lead to hours wandering the lots and taking picture after picture. The best time to visit is while the sun is up, so you can catch the magic of its beams reflecting off all the glass pieces. For an extra $5 during the summer, however, you can experience a 90-minute guided tour that not only points out hidden treasures in the Gardens, but delves into the attraction’s history, the Zagars’ biographies, and much more insider information.