Modern dog art roils old Malvern

It seemed like a fairly harmless idea at first. The neatly manicured lawn behind the Malvern Public Library could benefit from a few Adirondack chairs, a picnic table, and some artwork to create an inviting space for reading.

Kristin Thomas pictured dogs. Malvern is such a walkable place, thought the head of the Main Line borough’s community-funded arts project. What if we installed four fiberglass pop-art dogs, painted in colorful hues?

Council members approved her vision on the spot when they met in April. The fire chief even offered to raise money to place an arty hydrant next to the dogs.

“I was just trying to do something nice for the community,” Thomas said last week, deflated. “Everyone was like, ‘That’s fantastic, we’re not using that space to its fullest potential, it belongs to the public.’ ”

Suffice it to say not everyone in Malvern shared her vision.

Some residents whose front yards face the lawn said they felt blindsided. They criticized the design. They worried about safety.

What if a kid climbed on one of the dogs, fell, and injured himself? There could be lawsuits. What if people mistook the space for an actual dog park?

Last week, after months of planning, prototypes, hearings, and letters from the public, the borough council voted to ditch the dogs.

The debate, residents on both sides say, wasn’t so much about painted dogs but a historic town trying to hold on to its identity as it attracts new families, bigger homes, and development up and down King Street, its main drag.

“Most of the nice things here are left over from a time before us,” said Danny Fruchter, who lives down the street from the library and led the charge against the dog art. “And because it happens gradually, people don’t think about it. Little changes, a little bit at a time, look so incremental we don’t notice them altogether, but in 50 years are we going to recognize this town?”

Camera icon Julia Terruso / Staff
Malvern Borough Hall’s back lawn, where an artist proposed the installation of chairs and painted fiberglass dogs.

Malvern was a farming community when it incorporated in 1889 and is still home to well-preserved Victorians, century-old trees, and the First Baptist Church, established in 1875.

Change here is palpable. In 1979, when Fruchter moved in, Malvern was a lower-middle-class working community. Now median home prices have risen to $400,000. Restaurants and boutique shops are replacing antique stores. There’s a vape store and a yoga studio down the street from a VCR repair shop celebrating 40 years. A Wawa near the train station has a wooden painted sign to better fit with the old-time aesthetic.

The dogs weren’t the first of the modern intrusions. About four years ago, council allowed a developer to build multiple homes on the one-acre plot next to Borough Hall. Neighbors fought the project. Eastside Flats, a rare high-rise of homes and stores on King Street, faced similar resistance. Residents lost those fights.

“We’re more attentive as a community now because of some of the things that have either very nearly happened or have happened,” said Sid Baglini, 66, who lives across from the library. “And there’s an effort to maintain our quality of life and the nature of the town without being against all change. You can’t stop change and some change is good, but you want to keep an eye on it.”

After word of Thomas’ project got out, Fruchter, a cofounder of People’s Light & Theatre Company, circulated letters calling on neighbors to protest “this latest absurdity.”

Baglini, a retired educator and former docent at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, said: “I have no problem with various styles of art, and in its place that’s great. But this is one of the most historic corners in Malvern, it’s not the place for pop art.”

To Thomas, who found artists to paint murals depicting horses and buggies riding through Malvern and an old saddlery, the dogs were something fresh and different. She had secured half of the money for the project and brought in a local artist to paint the pups.

Camera icon Julia Terruso/Staff Writer
A mural, which Thomas secured community funding for on the side of Malvern Pizza.

The decision on the dogs disappointed Hallie Fornataro, who lives in the borough with her husband and two elementary-school-age children:

“Malvern is the best of everything. It has the history, which personally I’ve made sure my kids know about, and we have people with more progressive mind-sets so you get a mix of everything. When it comes to art, this was going to throw in this splash of funkiness to the historical Malvern and in my opinion I think that’s cool to have both.”

Amanda Byers, who lives in neighboring East Whiteland and uses Malvern’s library, called the reversal a shame.

“This was supposed to be a nice place for kids to gather outside and now we’ve all spent months of energy on this,” she said. “Their real problem is that it’s modern-looking. They want to keep the old-time charm and anything that goes against that they’re going to be against.”

Not one of the seven council members nor Malvern Mayor David Burton returned written requests seeking comment on their decision.

Borough manager Christopher Bashore said public safety in the end became the stated reason for the decision. There was concern that the lawn was too close to the police station door used for bringing in prisoners.

The debate has prompted council to create a policy for reviewing proposals on public land use. Thomas says she’ll resubmit the idea once that policy becomes official.

Librarian Maggie Stanton said her staff isn’t pro-dog or anti-dog.

“We’re not going to get into it,” she said. “Libraries like to remain neutral.”