If you’re traveling anywhere in center city near Independence Hall, take a few minutes and treat yourself to something really special.
Walk into the lobby of the Curtis Center on 6th Street between Chestnut and Walnut, and feast your eyes on The Dream Garden.
One of the most famous glass mosaics in the world, the shimmering masterpiece is a collaborative effort of two creative geniuses. Noted local artist Maxfield Parrish created the design. Louis Comfort Tiffany of Tiffany Studios executed it, using special iridescent favrile glass he patented.
As Inquirer Art Critic Edward J. Sozanski noted, the scene “more closely resembles a densely vegetated mountain landscape than a garden.”
To me, it looks like a beautiful sun-covered mountain scene with trees, flowers, walkways, a waterfall and more.
Be sure to notice the theatrical masks in the foreground. The nearby marker says they “evoke Parrish’s love of theatre and lend the character of a stage to this ideal landscape.”
Reportedly, the painting was inspired by real gardens at “the Oaks” Parrish’s summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire.
Measuring 15 by 49 feet and weighing nearly four tons, the huge masterpiece includes over 100,000 pieces of iridescent glass in 260 colors set in 24 panels. Installation alone took more than six months.
Cyrus Curtis, head of Curtis Publishing Company, and Edward W. Bok, senior editor, commissioned the work to highlight the company’s new headquarters. It was unveiled in 1916.
Curtis, owner of Ladies Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post and other enormously popular magazines, was one of the most successful publishers of the early 20th century. His extraordinary building also includes a 2-story marble fountain, terraced waterfall and 12-story atrium with faux-Egyptian palm trees.
On a gray January morning, with ice and snow everywhere and no bright colors visible anywhere, I ducked into the Curtis Center to see The Dream Garden for the first time in years.
The dazzling mosaic made me feel like I was at the Philadelphia Flower Show. It also reminded me that our endless winter of 2013-14 would actually end some day.
- According to the lobby’s informational marker, Parrish, a fabulously successful commercial artist, was the fourth person asked to create the design. The first three died.
- Parrish was generally considered to be America’s highest paid artist in the mid-1920s. According to the New York Times, the House of Art, a New York printing company, estimated that a lithograph of Parrish’s painting Daybreak could be found in one of every four American homes.
- While many people praise the collaboration between Parrish and Tiffany, their interaction evidently was more tumultuous behind the scenes. The website ushistory.org says, “Parrish complained that Tiffany’s translation of his design lacked subtlety and ‘painterliness.’ ” Tiffany, on the other hand, felt Parrish’s design sketches were technically vague.
In 1998, Philadelphia almost lost the work when John Merriman, owner of the mural, died. His estate agreed to sell it to casino owner Steve Wynn, who planned to move the piece to one of his casinos in Las Vegas.
Fortunately, the Pew Memorial Trust, with the help of four local institutions who donated their interests from the estate, purchased The Dream Garden for $3.5 million. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is now the permanent owner and custodian, and the mosaic will remain in its original location.
That would please Cyrus Curtis, who wanted art to be accessible to the general public “in their workplace and their everyday lives rather than in museums.”
So see this gorgeous work for yourself – absolutely free. It’s got to be the most beautiful bargain in town.
Name: The Dream Garden
Address: Curtis Center, 601 Walnut Street, Phila., PA 19106; Closest entrance is on 6th Street between Chestnut and Walnut. Saturday, use 7th St. door.
Hours: Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Created: In 1914 and 1915
Artist: Maxfield Parrish; Mosaic: Executed by Louis Comfort Tiffany
Size: 15 feet by 49 feet
Pieces of Glass: 100,000
Number of Colors: 260
Weight: Almost four tons
This article was originally published in the May/June 2014 edition of the Society Hill Reporter. It has been reprinted with permission.