Art behind bars: Law firm stingy with Lichtenstein

For several weeks, the Duane Morris law firm has been patting itself on the back for presenting Philadelphia with a new public sculpture by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein . Let's set the record straight: This sculpture is no gift, and it is definitely not public.

Sure, you can glimpse parts of Lichtenstein's monumental, brushstroke-shaped swirls as you stroll past the United Plaza Building on 17th Street, between Market and Chestnut Streets, but only those elements that poke up above the waist-high planters. You can get a fuller view of the colorful aluminum sculpture if you walk into the office building's supposedly public plaza. But you will have to look at it through the scrim of a prison-style metal fence.

You'll also have to try to block out a wall of metal baffling the size of a SEPTA bus, which forms a grotesque backdrop to Lichtenstein's suspended-animation brush strokes. Duane Morris said it erected the baffle so its employees would be spared the sight of the unattractive shops and the noise of traffic on neighboring Ranstead Street. How could the firm possibly think the baffle is an improvement? The design, by Bower Lewis Thrower Architects, has all the charm of a roll-down security gate.

Philadelphia is justly famous for being home to an impressive collection of outdoor sculpture, including such masterpieces as Rodin's Thinker, Oldenberg's Clothespin, and about a dozen delightful Calder sculptures. But until now, none of its public artwork has been caged behind bars.

Not only did Duane Morris cordon off its art trophy behind elaborate metal fortifications, the firm did so by usurping a patch of open space that once served as a sunny lunchtime oasis for Center City office workers. What was once a publicly accessible plaza has been arrogantly and cynically privatized.

Such disdain for the public realm seems to be on the rise in Philadelphia. In 2001, developer Peter DePaul tried to weasel out of his contractual obligation to install an outdoor sculpture at the Dockside apartments, even though the project received public subsidies.

Duane Morris - which is ranked among the nation's 100 biggest law firms and is expected to pull in $290 million this year - wasn't obligated to install public art when it moved its headquarters to United Plaza this summer. To its credit, the firm volunteered to bring in the Lichtenstein at its own expense. But its motivation wasn't selfless. Chairman Sheldon M. Bonovitz said he felt the 1975 office building by architect Welton Beckett needed some "panache. " With the help of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bonovitz arranged to lease Brushstroke Group, 96 from the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation for five years.

The firm clearly wanted the civic glow that comes with being a patron of the arts. But it wasn't civic-minded enough to share the full experience with the public.

Bonovitz doesn't even pretend that security was the motivation for taking over the plaza. The plaza was closed to pedestrians, he explained, so Duane Morris could hold private parties there. Let the brown-baggers eat elsewhere.

The firm was aided and abetted in this atrocity by its architect. Every element in BLT's design for the privatized plaza is aesthetically wrong. The metal fencing varies in height for no apparent reason. The Ranstead Street baffling is obtrusive and blinds pedestrians with reflected sunlight. The planted area around the 29-foot-high artwork is too big. The light fixtures at the sculpture's base pop out of the ground like mutant mushrooms.

It's not the first time that BLT has helped to muck up a high-traffic pedestrian space. The firm is also responsible for the two clunky SEPTA headhouses in the Penn Center plaza, between 15th and 16th Streets. The crude metal struts supporting the glass headhouses look as if they were designed with a welding torch.

Bonovitz, an avid art collector who serves on the boards of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation, concedes that the Lichtenstein fortification is less elegant than he hoped. He said BLT is redesigning the fence to make it uniform in height and also wants to camouflage the baffles with vines. Where those vines will take root, however, is anyone's guess, since the baffles are bolted onto concrete.

Softening the baffles won't do much for the unfortunate Ranstead Street merchants - a jeweler, vitamin store, pizza parlor and shoe repairer. Jay Hong, owner of Ranstead Shoe Repair, complained that his shoe-shine customers now look out on the metal barrier instead of a lively plaza. "It looks like a jail," he said.

Even worse, the retailers could lose business because they will be less visible to passersby. That hardly seems fair.

"It's our property, so it's fair," Bonovitz retorted when asked about the impact on the merchants. Thanks to Duane Morris , we may be able to watch another of Philadelphia's old, narrow streets be reduced to back-alley status.

The law firm has already decreased the area's retail mix by one store. The tower's ground floor once housed the Workbench furniture chain, but it was converted to the firm's cafeteria. Like the plaza, the restaurant isn't open to the public.

For Bonovitz, who specializes in collecting painting by self-taught outsider artists, being able to lease a Lichtenstein sculpture is a big coup. Unfortunately, it has reduced the rest of us to permanent outsiders.