From Philadelphia-area artist and writer, Roberta Lee:
Art Is A Stick In The Eye Of The Beholder
Two years ago, my husband spent several days in Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. We live in Cheltenham, a first-tier suburb a half an hour north of the hospital. It’s an easy drive, most of it on Broad Street, so I had ample opportunity to pass one of my favorite, iconic landmarks, the historic, currently derelict, allegedly haunted Divine Lorraine Hotel.
It was built between 1892 and 1894, originally serving as luxury apartments for some of Philadelphia's wealthiest hoi polloi and named The Lorraine. In 1948, under the ownership of Father Divine, it became the first hotel in Philadelphia to be racially integrated—thus the renaming to Divine Lorraine Hotel. Or Divine Lorraine Hote, as one of its signs currently reads, it being short an “L.”. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in architectural and civil rights history. But it’s been closed since 1999 and its marble floors, walnut paneling, and other architectural details were sold to salvage companies. The building is now a towering shell covered in graffiti, with its elegantly arched windows boarded up, filled roughly with cinder blocks or open to Mother Nature and intrepid humans willing to somehow navigate an eight foot high chain link fence topped with barbed wire to scale its face.
Thousands drive by it every day. I imagine few see the beauty it has maintained and fewer still see its current state as anything other than ugly. I’m guessing many sentences that include the name “Divine Lorraine” also include the words “eye sore.” It’s the graffiti that seems to offend the most. Yet it’s the graffiti that bothers me the least.
It’s not my absolute favorite Philadelphia graffiti, but it features two installations of remarkably energetic, eye-popping design. They’re on the roof, for one thing. And they’re huge. One side reads “EAGLES,” the other side is not readily deciphered but equally compelling. At ten stories from the ground, the “how” of it conjures truly scary scenarios, all involving nasty potential consequences.
The Divine Lorraine occupies a chunk of real estate that slid from trendy to trashy during its 123 years, and is presently on the cusp of a much-hyped yet so far unperceivable renewal. Many people would love to see it restored to use if not to its full former glory, and I’m among them. I will not lament the graffiti should it disappear, in other words. Art can be ephemeral. It can certainly also be distinctly in the eye of the beholder, or—in the case of graffiti—a stick in the eye of some beholders. I like some of it a lot; you don’t have to like any of it. You don’t even have to like the idea of it, and it’s still art.
Why is it art? Because someone set out to do it, and then did it. Their motivations, their level of training, whether or not they were paid, and the fact that no committee put it to a vote or expert pre-approved it is meaningless. How or if it effects your property value is obviously a question that has meaning for you, yet ultimately not for art. Art is self-expression. It’s the making of a thing where no thing previously was, whether it’s a piece of music or writing, a dance or gigantic, swirly letters painted on the roof of a cool old building that will probably be the first thing to go when the Divine Lorraine’s oft-threatened resurrection finally takes place.
Philadelphia is a city with a vibrant mural program; it’s also a city with a vibrant graffiti program. One is publicly funded; one is publicly reviled. They exist side by side—often quite literally, on the same surface. Who decides which is fun or inspiring or beautiful is up to only one person. You. But no matter what your decision, they both remain art.
And I’ll say here, as I thank Roberta heartily, that thirty-five years back, when Tamar and I lived in Philly, she had her batik studio, her Fairmount Avenue art studio, a wine bottle cork’s short hurl from the old, as yet magnificent, Divine Lorraine.
And no one has put into words the amalgam of feelings and social justice issues all truly sentient Philly people, seeing the old place, taking in the graffiti, quite like Roberta Lee has here.
The Divine Lorraine in more recent years.
In better days...the divine Lorraine.
And more, newer photos, inside and out.
[Roberta's piece will find its way to the air.]