Skin of the Bride goes to full Philadelphia Historical Commission for Historical Designation consideration July 13

Isaiah Zagar (born 1939) was a nineteen-year-old art student when he met Clarence Schmidt, creator of the House of Mirrors in Woodstock, NY. This meeting changed his life, and radically expanded his notion of the kind of art he could make and where he could make it. After three years in the Peace Corps in Peru, Zagar settled in the South Street section of Philadelphia in the 1960s, then a rundown area with cheap rent. Since that time he has continued to live and work in this same area, following the path that opened up for him following his meeting with Schmidt.


Isaiah Zager with one of his colorful mosaics.

Zagar’s art has two main manifestations. The best known, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, is an exuberant art environment and gallery space built on two vacant lots adjacent to his studio. Constructed on multiple levels with open-air corridors, entryways, staircases and rooms, it teems with color and a dizzying assemblage of found objects. The walls include inlaid texts as well as images and, in one section, pay homage to artists such as Sabato Rodia and Ferdinand Cheval.

The other demonstration of Zagar’s art can be seen on over 100 buildings in the Philadelphia area that have been adorned with multi-story glass and ceramic mosaic murals. Perhaps his most renowned work outside of the Magic Gardens is Skin of the Bride, which sheaths the Painted Bride Art Center. It has been an icon in the Philadelphia area since its creation between 1991 and 2001 (Zagar later donated the mosaic work to the center).

Painted Bride

The Skin of the Bride. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens

However, this work is now threatened. The Painted Bride Art Center has plans to move out of the adorned building and sell the property to the highest bidder, using the proceeds to support its project-based activities. Originally a raw industrial space used to manufacture elevators, it was purchased in the late ‘80s for $325,000 and is now worth well over $2 million. It is sure to attract prospective buyers, but conservation of the mural by potential new owners is not guaranteed. 

This concern, then, inspired the effort to obtain historical status for the mural. Undertaken largely by advocates at the Magic Gardens, and supported by a panel of the Philadelphia Historical Commission in a unanimous vote, the recommendation now goes to the full Historical Commission for consideration at its July 13 meeting.

Skin of the Bride

Skin of the Bride. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens

Despite this positive community support, some on the board of the Painted Bride believe that historical designation would severely hinder the organization’s goals, as it might negatively affect the sales price of the building and, thus, their endowment, used primarily to support contemporary artists in Philadelphia. Others find the Art Center supporters’ indifferent attitude toward their long-time home perplexing. Old City resident Rick Snyderman, who himself once sat on the Bride’s board, noted, “I find it extraordinary … that an arts organization is advocating the destruction of an iconic work of art. What a strange time.” 

Emily Smith, executive director of the Magic Gardens, is advocating strongly in support of saving the site: 

Historic and cultural spaces matter. This building's façade represents the power of community, rebellion of spirit, and that creative minds can (and should) transform our neighborhoods. This place honors the dreamers who came before us. It is a reminder of the sweet strangeness of Philadelphia that needs to be championed, not forgotten, as the city develops.

If you are interested in learning more about the effort to support the historical designation process for Isaiah Zagar’s mosaic on the Painted Bride Art Center, please read the application, and, if you are in the area, attend the next scheduled Philadelphia Historical Commission meeting at 1515 Arch Street on July 13, 9:00 AM. 

Read Smith's full letter for Skin of the Bride here.

Learn more about Isaiah Zagar here. 

Thanks for your support in helping us save this important artwork!

 Painted Bride

The Skin of the Bride. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens


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