The Painted Bride Arts Center got its start in 1969, in a storefront on South Street which was previously a bridal shop (hence the name). The organization describes itself as a multi-disciplinary arts presenter, and it has presented a countless exhibits and performances over the years in the areas of music, dance, theater, and visual arts. In 1982, the Bride purchased a former elevator factory at 230 Vine St., and this space served it well in the ensuing decades. And the organization served the previously nondescript building well, working with local artist Isaiah Zagar, who covered the building with a mosaic called Skin of the Bride over the course of the 1990s. This made the home of the Painted Bride one of the most interesting buildings in the city.
But times change. The Painted Bride decided, a couple years ago, to pivot in their approach and pursue programming in various locations around the city, not centered at a single space in Old City. With this change in their mission and significant maintenance costs for their building, the organization decided to sell their property. Good plan, it turns out, as this property has a number of things going for it, including a strong location, two frontages, a large size, and favorable zoning. Rather quickly, a developer put it under agreement at a purchase price of $4.85M, with a plan for 16 condos. This influx of funds would allow the Painted Bride to continue to pursue its organizational goals for years to come, but the potential demolition of the building resulted in some significant opposition. First, it was nominated to the Historic Register, but it fell short of the votes needed for listing.
Next, the court battle began. A little over a year ago, Orphans Court ruled that the mosaic was irreplaceable and that the building could not be demolished. Predictably, the Painted Bride appealed the ruling and just yesterday, the Commonwealth Court overturned the previous ruling, indicating that the organization was not obligated to preserve the art on its building. Per Plan Philly, the developers that previously had the building under agreement are still interested, so there’s a chance that plan will still move forward. It’s also possible that the property will continue to be tied up in litigation for a couple more years.
The whole thing makes us sick, to be honest. The mosaic on the building is awesome and we’d argue it is indeed irreplaceable, and its loss will constitute a harm to the public interest. On the other hand, the property is owned by a non-profit organization which does incredible good in the arts community and the sale of this asset will provide funding for years to come. Forcing the Painted Bride or a buyer to preserve the building on Vine Street would result in a lower sale price, depriving the non-profit of crucial funds.
There’s no great solution to this problem that would save the building and make the non-profit whole, unfortunately, aside from the City stepping in to fill the financial gap between the sale price of a preserved building and the sale price for a developer with plans to tear it down. Given that the City isn’t exactly swimming in spare funds these days, we don’t see that as a viable option, unfortunately. So figure the building will indeed sell at a price approaching $5M and the wonderful mosaic will be lost. We just hope that the shroud that’s currently atop the mosaic is removed for a time before demolition begins, so we can appreciate it again before it’s gone for good.