It began with a man named Edward Bok, who as a young man published a few pieces in the Brooklyn Eagle, a newspaper once edited by Walt Whitman. The hard-working Bok went to night school and in 1887 became an ad 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 superficial woman’s magazine into a best-selling publication that campaigned for women’s suffrage, pacifism, and the protection of the environment. 

Bok believed that good art should find a place in public buildings, so he asked Mr. 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, 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. 

In the lobby of the Curtis Building there was a large blank wall measuring over one thousand square feet. The space seemed to call for a mural, much the same way that many outdoor spaces today call for Jane Golden and the Mural Arts Project. Bok wanted to commission another mural, but rather than re-employ Parrish, which would have been the logical thing to do, he looked elsewhere, as if trying for 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 struck a deal. Abbey was given permission to paint anything he wanted to paint for the large Curtis Center white wall. Abbey’s idea was a theme based on “The Grove of Academe,” with Plato and his disciples lounging around in philosophical ecstasy. 

Thinking the matter settled, Bok returned to America, but the very day that Abbey started the project in Sargent’s London studio, he fell over dead, as if cursed by a competing artist’s voodoo spell. 

Wasting little time because he wanted to cover that blank white wall, Bok found a Wilmington artist named Howard Pyle who also happened to be a Plato expert. Yet the hoped for connection never came about because when Bok telephoned the artist’s Wilmington home to kick start negotiations he was told that Pyle had just died an hour earlier while traveling in Italy. 

A third artist, Boutet de Monvel, a famous decorative master, agreed to do the project. After a lengthy correspondence, Bok invited Monvel to Philadelphia to inspect the space at the Curtis but almost immediately after arrangements were made, Monvel died in Paris.

Now it was time for Bok, who was beginning to feel cursed, to step back and take stock. He started to think collectively. He would ask six of the leading mural artists in the county to submit a full-color mural proposal on any subject of their choosing. The Plato Scholar Squirrel idea went out the window. Yes, the blank white wall in the Curtis building lobby would be transformed into a masterpiece! 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. 

Bok’s U-turn back to Parrish happened because he remembered a certain glass mosaic curtain by Louis C. Tiffany he’d once seen in Mexico City’s Municipal Theatre. He recalled Favrile glass set in cement and how that produced a marvelous luminosity. Bok also knew that glass was more durable than tiles or mosaic. Tiffany agreed to the partnership but it came to a halt when Bok couldn’t come up with an appropriate sketch. 

This led him back to Parrish. He connected with Parrish at the latter’s New Hampshire summer home and followed up on the artist’s old dream of creating a dream garden of some sort. Parrish was asked to come up with a sketch. Parrish, a little uncomfortable at the idea, had never worked with glass or mosaics, but his 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 paint and canvas. 

It took six months for the mural to be disassembled in New York and then reassembled in Philadelphia. 

Parrish was born in 1870 in Philadelphia into a family of Quaker physicians. He went to Haverford College but then transferred to PAFA in 1892. When he left PAFA in 1894, he wanted to leave Philadelphia for his father’s mansion in Cornish, New Hampshire, but fate (some call it Philadelphia’s dragging vortex that seems to keep many people here despite their intentions to move) had other ideas. 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 as a married man. Sue Lewin was a sixteen-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 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. The truth was revealed sometime after both their deaths when construction workers at the estate found a book of nude photos Parrish had taken of the young 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 323 handwritten letters to Roelker survive, but Parrish destroyed Nancy’s letters to him, fearing a scandal. (The letters are collected in the book, Maxfield Parrish: The Secret Letters by Alma Gilbert.) In fact, when Parrish’s parents split up in 1900, it caused him to have a nervous breakdown. Parrish then traveled to California to recuperate in a southern California spiritual commune. 

In the early 20th century almost every home in America had a Maxfield Parrish print. Parrish’s work saturated the market. It has been noted that he was the first American artist to exploit the potential of mass-media reproduction. He was Andy Warhol before there was an Andy Warhol. He did covers for Life, Collier’s, and Harper’s Weekly, 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 — canvases depicting eternal blue skies — reflected the Age of Innocence, although his popularity began to decline in the 1930s. And it really sank into the mire after WWII. 

In his time, Parrish was as popular as Van Gogh and Salvador Dali are today. After WWII, 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, 

In 1964, there was an attempt to re-electrify interest in Parrish’s art when a massive showing of his work took place in New York City. That attempt fell flat, however. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts had a popular and impressive retrospective of Parrish’s work in 1999, one year after the controversy surrounding Steve Wynn’s attempt to dismantle and ship Dream Garden to the lobby of one of his Las Vegas casinos. 

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 Philadelphia attraction. Dream Garden was still attracting visitors despite the fact that Parrish’s artistic reputation had been demoted by the stuffy art scholar squirrels. But 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 then knew next to nothing about Dream Garden. The Dream Garden lobby was mostly regarded as a pretty walk-through area where one might 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 Philadelphia treasure,” another addition to a list that ranged from historic houses to personalities. 

Dream Garden awoke from its slumber and moved to center stage in July 1998 when it was announced that an anonymous buyer wanted to remove it from the lobby of the Curtis Building. 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. 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.” 

That seems honorable enough, at least on the surface, even if Bok himself once referred to Dream Garden as “public art.” 

When a co-worker of mine at 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 counterculture style protest march with handmade 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 talked to told us, “It’s a done deal. The mural has already been bought. The situation is hopeless.” 

In some ways it seemed like a ludicrous idea; two people do not a demonstration make. Or do they? We were driven to the site by a friend, who did not stick around to see what would happen, but drove away wishing us luck. 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 demonstration 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 28 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. Some just wanted to say thank you, while others looked forward to venting their anger and frustration over the sale. For many people, this was the outlet they were looking for.

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 over 600 signatures during that three-day span. My friend and I were shuffled in and out of TV studios — Fox News, Channel 48, NBC 10, Channel 6 and 35. A few television interviews were conducted in front of my apartment on Pine Street, and with each broadcast more people wanted to join the Arts Defense League because there were other art works in the city that needed saving. Some who joined us envisioned a new organization along the lines of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

As a result of the protests we organized and the mayor’s action, on July 29, 1998 the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC) notified the Merriam estate its intention to designate Dream Garden as an historic object under the City of Philadelphia’s historic preservation ordinance. 

Following the nomination, PHC refused to issue the demolition permit requested by the estate — demolition in this case meaning removal. 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 four 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 money and a board of directors weighed in — references to our group seemed to diminish. The group my co-worker and I started eventually disbanded, 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 the minimalist language used in these descriptions, like “petition gatherers,” “a group of demonstrators,” or even time-warp phrases like, “the public also protested the sale of Dream Garden.” 

It’s wise to remember that the public did not also oppose the sale of Dream Garden, but in fact were the first to protest the sale, and as such, were the ones to draw in the…. band-wagoner politicians and the weightier institutions who came along much later. 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

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