Preserving Magic: Can Philadelphia protect Isaiah Zagar's dazzling folk art?

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story and photo by Dominic MercierThis article is part of a special editorial partnership with Hidden City Daily on preservation in Philadelphia.Like what you read? Check out the full March 2013 issueand visit Hidden Cityfor more stories on the inspiring preservation work being done in Philadelphia.

Nearly 10 years ago, in 2002, Philadelphia nearly saw the loss of some of its more unique artwork: the Magic Gardens. A mosaic wonderland created by visionary artist Isaiah Zagar, the Gardens are considered responsible for helping revitalize the once derelict South Street. So when the owner of the once-vacant lot Zagar’s artwork now occupies announced he would sell, the community immediately responded with support. Their efforts saved Zagar’s work. “Otherwise,” says Ellen Owens, executive director of the nonprofit Magic Gardens, “[the gardens] would no longer be here.”

While Zagar now owns the three main lots, protecting the Magic Gardens is no easy feat. The roughly 50,000 square feet of murals are made from pottery, glass and found objects. They climb over walls (both inside and out), cover shops, alleys and private homes, spreading from the central Magic Gardens site across nearly 33 Philadelphia blocks—much on private property.

One tool for preservation may be the creation of a “Zagar zone of protection,” an idea posited by Sarah Modiano, a Columbia University preservation student. Modiano sees Zagar’s work as a singular visionary art environment like Los Angeles’ Watts Towers and Brooklyn’s Broken Angel. Those works—which are discrete sculptural installations—have been named national landmarks and thus, given nominal protection. But Owens notes that preserving Zagar’s oeuvre, which is largely integrated in the fabric of the neighborhood, will be a challenge.

In addition to the whims of property owners, the work is subject to seasonal expansion and contraction from rain, sleet and snow, as well as the eager hands of visitors. And because of the diverse materials there isn’t a single straightforward method for conservation.

Currently, the sprawling murals are maintained by the spry, 74-year-old Zagar and a lone assistant. The Magic Gardens is now taking steps to assess general conservation, a complex undertaking considering the amount of materials used in each work and the artist’s vision. “Isaiah won’t always be able to be the caretaker here,” says Owens, “so we need to be able to understand what he wants.”

Philadelphia’s Magic Garden, 1020 South St., phillymagicgardens.org