The Painted Bride Art Center, with its intricate, baroque facade of colorful, mirrored mosaics, ought to be designated historic, a panel of the Philadelphia Historical Commission recommended Wednesday.

The Bride, on the 200 block of Vine Street, is entirely sheathed in tile-and-mirror murals created by Isaiah Zagar, who installed them over a number of years in the 1990s. The arts organization, granddaddy of Philadelphia's alternative performing arts spaces, has been at the location since 1981. It was founded on South Street in 1969.

"They helped transform Old City … into the hub of arts and culture that it is today," Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, told the Historical Commission's Committee on Historic Designation.

The designation committee unanimously agreed.

The recommendation now goes to the full Historical Commission and will likely be taken up at its July 13 meeting.

The Painted Bride, which announced in November that it planned to sell its building and become a "project-based" organization, opposed any designation.

"We came to the decision to sell the building after three years of careful consideration," Joan Sloan, chair of the Painted Bride board of directors, told the committee. She cited financial and maintenance pressures, the changing nature of the Old City neighborhood, and the changing needs of the larger arts world.

"The bottom line," she said "is that the Bride is not the building."

There is no pending sale.

Passion in a packed room

There was much passion evident in the packed committee room. Several supporters of the Bride's plan to move lauded the organization's decision to do so.

Carlo Campbell, a member of Theatre in the X, a West Philadelphia company devoted to bringing theater to people of color in the communities, said historic designation was "antithetical to what Painted Bride can do" in support of such efforts.

"Anybody here who is about the work of the artist," he said, "should be on board with what the Bride is seeking to do."

The setting sun reflects off Isaiah Zagar’s mural on the facade of the Painted Bride.
TOM GRALISH
The setting sun reflects off Isaiah Zagar’s mural on the facade of the Painted Bride.

Should the Bride shed its building, the organization's leaders have said they will seek to become community focused, creating projects that are not determined by their building's needs and location.

Proponents of designation argue that the Bride has not fully explored its options and that selling the building will ultimately mean destruction of the mosaics by a developer.

Old City resident Rick Snyderman, formerly on the Bride's board, referred to Zagar as an iconic artist who created "the equivalent of a national landmark" with his work on the Bride building, formerly an elevator manufacturing site.

"I find it extraordinary … that an arts organization is advocating the destruction of an iconic work of art," Snyderman told the committee. "What a strange time."