by Diane M. Fiske
Streetscape is a column about architecture, city planning and urban design.
Until 2017, the public largely paid little attention to statues occupying public spaces and spent even less time trying to understand why these slabs of marble went up in the first place.
That changed when violence broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia between white nationalists who felt a statue of Robert E. Lee had a place in their park, and those who felt the city council was right in removing it.
After that, statues across the country became hot topics of conversation, both good and bad. Some notable statues close to home include those of Daniel Pastorius in Germantown, and Benjamin Franklin and Christopher Columbus in Center City.
Mt. Airy resident Paul Farber, the artistic director and co-founder of Monument Lab, is leading an effort with co-founder Ken Lum, also the chair of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Pennsylvania, to help people understand statues influencing public opinions.
Monument Lab released a “Report to The City” late last year to discuss the use of statues in public spaces.
As a result, Farber, a lecturer in urban studies and fine arts at UPenn, was invited to bring his organization’s findings to the January meeting of the Design Advocacy Group. A public forum based in Philadelphia, the DAG serves as an advocate for maintaining quality in city development.
Farber said his group’s goal is to clarify misunderstandings surrounding statues, some of which have led to disturbances such as the violent clash in Charlottesville.
“Many of the Confederate statues went in at a time that African Americans were fighting for their rights in Charlottesville and other southern cities such as Richmond,” Farber said. “The Robert E. Lee statue was installed in 1924 and named a historic marker in the 1970s.”
He said Monument Lab began in 2012 as a classroom project showing the history of monuments and the average citizen’s sense of belonging and ownership of monuments we inherited from the past.
“I think when you see a historic marker, you get a bit of information on not only what it is, but also how it got there,” he said. “Many statues of Confederate heroes, such as that of Robert E. Lee, were installed only in the mid-20th century.”
Some statues serve as educational tools, such as the statue of Pastorius in Vernon Park. The statue is dedicated to the 17th century Quaker leader who wrote one of the first documents protesting slavery.
Statues often help people better understand history, Farber said. During World War II, the statue of Pastorius, who was of German ancestry, was covered with boxes by local historians to protect it from the emotions laid bare by the war.
A statue does not have to be permanent, he said. An example of this is the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo, currently standing in front of the Municipal Services Building near City Hall in Center City. Though details are still pending, the statue is set to be moved after this year’s mayoral election.
“We have had to address the fact that Frank Rizzo represented years of division and resentment from some members of the public, including African Americans,” he said.
Finally, Farber pointed to the outline building of Benjamin Franklin’s house, designed by architect Robert Venturi, behind his print shop museum at 3rd Street and Market Street. He said this memorial is “ideal.”
“There is an outline of the house of a famous person,” he said. “The viewer fills in the details and the furnishing. It will be important for a long time.”
The activities of the Monument Lab can be followed at monumentlab.com, where the Report to the City is also available.
Diane Fisk lives in Chestnut Hill and writes about architecture and urban planning for The Philadelphia Inquirer.