A couple of weekends ago, we finally made it over to visit Philadelphia's Magic Gardens on South Street, which was built by Isaiah Zagar over the course of some 14 years. Zagar and his family first settled on South Street in the late 1960's, when the area was threatened by Ed Bacon's proposed South Street Expressway. The expressway was to be the southern sister to the Vine Street Expressway, and would have replaced the block between South and Lombard with a six-lane highway trench. Given the uncertainty about the fate of the area, artists and others moved in to take over the strip while the prices were cheap, and created the creative, happening South Street of yore.
While South Street's fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the intervening 40 years, the Zagars have been stalwart and iconic residents. Isaiah's mirrored, painted, and ebullient mosaic murals came to define the streetscape of the neighborhood, and wife Julia's Eyes Gallery has been open continuously for over thirty years. In 1994, Zagar walled in a neighboring abandoned lot with his trademark walls, and began constructing the 3,000 square foot Magic Gardens. The site quickly became a landmark in the neighborhood and city. So quickly in fact that when the owner of the lot attempted to sell it in 2002, the community contributed to establish a non-profit that bought the land and will preserve the gardens in perpetuity. Like the best outsider architecture and art, the site is a monument to one man's pursuit of a project.
“Art is the center of the real world, and Philadelphia is the center of the art world.”
There is a 2008 film titled In a Dream that chronicles the work of Zagar, and in the process reveals much about his history and strained relationship with his family. To view the movie and spend a couple of hours in Zagar's mind reveals the fine line between genius, obsession, and insanity. Like the Watts Towers or Cheval's Palace, these projects are never completed without a tinge of mania. It seems as though those who are least able to handle the stresses and trials of real life seem to be those most capable of realizing their fantasies.
And of course, we had to do a little video portrait to round out our visit. Click through to Vimeo to see it in full HD.
The Magic Gardens from Michael Burlando on Vimeo.