Suburban Soliloquy #52

Finding the Dream Garden

The day of Ms Keogh's recertification examination was chilly and rainy. The most I could do to reduce the stress was to keep her company and offer the convenience of driving her door-to-door. The examination was to be given at The Curtis Center, formerly the Curtis Building, located on the corner of Sixth and Walnut. The building faces Independence Hall, the eighteenth century State House of the Province of Pennsylvania, where my Nation's "Declaration of Independence" and its "Constitution" were hammered into shape.

We arrived into Center City with time to spare. I pulled into an empty spot and waited while Ms Keogh checked out the building and made sure she knew where the test was to be given. Since we had extra time, she thought we might first have coffee together. I didn't wait long when she came rushing back in a flurry of excitement. "It's here!" she declared, "the Tiffany mosaic is here! You've got to come in and see it."

I had forgotten about the Tiffany mosaic. It had been in the news recently. The building's owner, Jack Merriam, had died in 1997. He had saved the building from the wrecking ball and had it refurbished in 1984. His wife, executor of her husband's estate, was trying to sell the mosaic to Steve Wynn, a Las Vegas casino owner. A legal battle ensued as the local contingent of art lovers and preservationist went up in arms and the Philadelphia Historical Commission, who already certified the building's historical importance, now considered this interior decoration as integral to the building's architecture. On learning the news, I had intended to seek out the mosaic and see it before it was possibly gone. It then slipped from my mind until Ms Keogh came bustling back to the car announcing her discovery.

We found a legal place to park, popped quarters into the meter, and together forsook coffee to see the mosaic.

The stone fašade of The Curtis Center appeared like a Greek temple with pairs of columns, the higher stories being of brick. This was formerly the home of the Curtis Publishing Company. Cyrus H. K. Curtis made his fortune launching the Ladies' Home Journal in the late nineteenth century when women were first entering the marketplace en masse as shoppers. Before that century was over he added to that success by buying the Pennsylvania Gazette, a journal originally begun by Benjamin Franklin, which then became the extremely famous The Saturday Evening Post.

Ms Keogh vigorously pulled me by the hand up the front staircase and into the small marble lobby of The Curtis Center, and there it was, The Dream Garden [1916]. Over 100,000 tiles of Favrile Glass from the Tiffany Studios formed a landscape painting fifteen feet high and forty-nine feet across, set back behind a small fountain. It is a view looking out from a hardwood forest to a valley and waterfall between high mountains. Among the flowers in the foreground were two short pedestals carved with matching comic faces that had immense grins, a style instantly recognizable as that of Maxfield Parrish, one of the Curtis publications most famous illustrators. Louis Comfort Tiffany based his glass mosaic on an original painting by Parrish. Another clue was the gradients of blue tiles that made up the sky.

I sat for a time on a marble bench with a high back that faced the mosaic. It was terribly uncomfortable, with a sharp ridge cutting across my back and countering the calming affect of the mosaic, but I had no other complaint. Indeed, I am happy to report that signs were posted announcing The Dream Garden, perhaps the best of Tiffany's mosaics, had been saved and would remain where we found it, and in the care of Ms Keogh's second alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

As there was still time before her exam would commence, we further explored The Curtis Center. My own interest included a small room that extended out into the lobby from the adjacent office, presently a bank. The wall of the room had large stain glass windows with images of the history of printing. They included the famous printer's marks of Aldus Manutius, William Caxton, William Morris, and one I couldn't identify.

Ms Keogh led me past the elevator banks and into the belly of building. I felt a rush when we came out of a small and narrow place to enter an immense atrium rising more than ten stories high. This hollow core was at an earlier time filled with a giant printing press. Now it is a vast public space occupied by columns mounted with potted plants and shops along the walls. At one end of this space was an unusual fountain. Marble platforms poured out into the atrium like the expanding steps of a grand staircase. The whole had a sheen because it was entirely coated by a thin flow of cascading water. At the last moment the water disappeared down a crack leaving a last rim of marble dry and available for sitters.

Well, Ms Keogh had to go off to take her test. While she was thus occupied, I went off to visit the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It is a curious thing, but when I sat down to write this month's essay, I intended to write about my afternoon in the museum. Although I reached the museum without difficulty, I didn't find my way there in this brief piece of prose. The experience that most impressed me of that day was not to be found wandering the galleries of a museum chock-full of the artifacts from extinct cultures. Instead, I find myself trying to share the immense satisfaction I derived from making the discovery of a local hidden treasure from the current culture in which I live. Ms Keogh uncovered the legendary Tiffany mosaic, following which she served as my guide to reveal the grand cavaedium of The Curtis Center, all without paying an entrance fee. This was a fine archaeological exploration.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the fifty-second in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is now available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"