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Hidden in Plain Sight

The North Wing

by Malcolm Johnstone

Located at 10 North High Street in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the STONE RELIEFS by Harry Rosin is the largest public art project in the region.

On the first block of North High Street, a four-panel sculpture looms some 80-feet above the sidewalk as thousands of people pass by who seemingly take no notice of the artwork in their midst. Within the panels, fifteen carved figures are set in poses evoking their own sense of movement. Each represent a point in history dating from the earliest days of European settlements. It's an impressive example of the culture and style of Chester County during the 1960's.

For nearly a half century, its creator has remained all but anonymous and the story it tells largely ignored. Now, with a little research from the archives of the Chester County Historical Society's library, its story can be brought to light. It covers the community's desire to be modern and artistic, while at the same time historic and reflective. To achieve this was no small feat. Nearly three years of planning, controversy, and compromise took place before the sculptures were finally erected.

One cannot fully appreciate the sculptures without an understanding of the circumstances surrounding the development of the building upon which they were placed. Thus, a little background is provided.

From Courthouse to Courthouse Complex
In the early 1960's, Chester County needed to expand its judicial and administrative services. To fulfill this, it hired the Philadelphia architectural firm of Baader, Young & Schultze to design a five-story structure that would be called the North Wing. It replaced the three-story Assembly Building -- originally built as the Meconkey Mansion -- which sat just north of the courthouse and had served as the government administration building. The intent was to create a Courthouse Complex that would include the Courthouse, the North Wing, and a green space with a fountain. Walter L. Schultze and Andrew Schoerke were the lead architects. Schultze died before the structure was completed; Schoerke had a successful architectural career, served in the US Naval Reserve achieving the rank of captain, and is now gainfully retired in Vermont. The Schoerke Foundation in Westtown Township is named after him.

The North Wing first opened to the public on April 24, 1966, to introduce the $3.3-million structure. It had two court rooms, located on the second floor, plus administrative offices which included the Board of Commissioners offices and their meeting chambers. The original address was 16 North High Street. That was changed to 2 North High Street when the North Wing became the entrance to the entire Courthouse Complex. On October 14, 2011, the building was sold to the E Kahn Development and J. Loew & Associates and the address was changed again to 10 North High Street while the Historic Courthouse retains its correct address of 2 North High Street.

The old collides with the new
The architecture of the North Wing is International style with elements of Brutalism. The front facade is of limestone veneer and has one vertical column of windows obscured by the Stone Reliefs. The architects described the design as having a "colossal impact" relating to the "mass" of the structure. Despite its Postmodernistic characteristics, there are architectural features borrowed heavily from the 1846 Courthouse located next door. Designed by Thomas U. Walter (1804-1887), the Greek Revival courthouse shares the quality of a granite stone facade with the North Wing where there are inverted dentils at the cornice as a nod to the historic nature of its neighbor.

The Stone Reliefs
When the design was first presented, the front facade received significant public criticism for being "too plain." That was soon addressed with the intention of adding an artistic feature. Chester County artist Andrew Wyeth was asked to head the committee that would select an appropriate artist.

Harry Rosin  Harry Rosin (1897-1973), an internationally known sculptor living in New Hope, Bucks County, was selected from a number of submissions. He is probably best known for the Connie Mack Statue (1957) now located at Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia. Rosin was asked to complete a series of commemorative panels set in a "vertical motif." The result was four panels, each depicting individuals that are part of the history of Chester County. They were carved from statuary buff Indiana limestone over a period of six months by George Hitchcock, James Salady, and Webster Bundy at the Heltonville Limestone Corporation in Bedford, Indiana, with direct oversight by Rosin. Each panel is ten-feet high, five-feet wide and one-foot thick and together they weigh a total of eighteen tons. The panels cover the column of windows on the east facade, but there are spaces in the sculpture where light is emitted from inside the building giving it a backlit glow. It became Rosin's largest work.

Stone Reliefs, Panel 2Placement of the Stone Reliefs was completed on March 11, 1966. However, nothing was placed on the work to suggest who did downtown's most dynamic and expressive historic rendering.

Characters depicted in each panel
The selection of who should be represented in each of the panels is as curious as the sculpture is magnificent. The County Commissioners, suspecting that this would be still another controversial endeavor, formed an advisory committee of local experts to make a recommendation. It was chaired by Dr. Arthur James, a professor of chemistry at West Chester University and president of the Chester County Historical Society. Committee members included Mary E. Page Allinson and William Palmer Lear, both of whom were instrumental in providing the Chester County Art Association a permanent home in East Bradford Township; artist Philip Jamison; and art critic John Frederich Lewis, who died before the project was finished. Despite a committee laden with art aficionados, no artists are represented in the work.

The final component of the work was a stone legend that appears at the base of the sculpture executed by A. Regis Milione (1917-1994) of Drexel Hill. It was commissioned to identify each of the characters in the sculpture.

From top to bottom, those depicted in the sculpture are:

Panel 1 : Native Indian | Founding Settlers

This is the only panel that has anonymous figures: a "Native Indian" and a male and female representing the "Founding Settlers." It seems odd that while each of the other individuals are identified in the remaining panels, there was no selection of, say, William Penn, who established Chester County, or Lappawinsoe, Chief of the Lenni Lenape Tribe at the time.

Panel 2 : George Washington | Marquis de Lafayette | Anthony Wayne

George Washington, a Virginian, and Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman, are surely most notable, but are not strongly connected to Chester County except for the time they fought the British at the Battle of Brandywine, one of the bloodiest encounters of the American Revolutionary, and their subsequent retreat to Valley Forge. General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, however, was very much a local hero.

Panel 3 : William Darlington | Bayard Taylor | Thomas McKean | Rebecca Lukens

Each of the individuals depicted in this panel were actually born and bred Chester Countians. If anyone could be called the father of West Chester, it would be William Darlington (1782-1863). Bayard Taylor (1825-1878) was a great writer and critic whose words still resonate today. Thomas McKean (1734-1817) could be placed among the legion of under-rated founders who was a political leader, scholar, lawyer and signer of the Declaration of Independence. And Rebecca Lukens (1794-1854) added more than gender diversity -- as the head of Lukens Steel she was a woman who competed effectively in what was truly a man's world. The glaring omission would be that of Thomas U. Walter, whose architectural elements from the Courthouse are emulated on the North Wing, not to mention the existence of at least three other of his outstanding local structures.

Panel 4 : Smedley D. Butler | Mark Sullivan | Herb Pennock | George Morris Phillips

This panel is the most curious to modern eyes. Smedley Darlington Butler (1881–1940), at the time of his death the most decorated Marine in US history, was revered in West Chester. But Raymond Rettew (1903-1973), a local lad responsible for the first mass production of penicillin and easily credited with saving thousands of lives during World War II, did not make it onto the sculpture. Mark Sullivan (1874-1952), a writer whose only noteworthy work is an out-of-print, six-volume tome called Our Times, has quietly slipped into obscurity while Horace Pippin (1888–1946), a self-taught African-American painter considered one of America's foremost artists, is passed over. Herb Pennock (1894-1948), the great baseball Hall-of-Famer, had his character blemished in 1947 when, as manager of the Phillies, he was either unwilling or unable to prevent his team from significantly attacking Jackie Robinson with racial slurs during a game. While Pennock appears to be depicted twice both as a boy and an adult, there doesn't seem to have been room for a notable such as Pierre du Pont (1870-1954), who created Longwood Gardens, a major Chester County attraction, not to mention his philanthropic contributions to local schools and hospitals including the expansion of Chester County Hospital into what it is today. George Morris Phillips (1851-1920) is, on the other hand, most deserving of his place within the reliefs since he, as principal of the West Chester State Normal School for 39 years, helped positioned it to eventually become West Chester University.

But finally. . .
While it may be easy to point out the obvious social flaws found within the work, it's not meant to be a criticism of the value of the sculpture or the individuals who worked hard to make it happen. Rather, this is merely an observation that the work is a reflection of the uneven time of the mid-'60s in Chester County. It was a time when the assasination of President John F. Kennedy was still fresh in the minds of Americans; of the Great Society promoted by President Lyndon B. Johnson; and the beginning of the Vietnam War. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the Stone Reliefs are clearly an important monument and one that deserves the respect of the community it was meant to honor.

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Acknowledgments

  • Jane E. Dorchester, Architectural Historian, provided insight into the architectural features of the North Wing.

Originally posted March 27, 2013; updated October 5, 2018

 

 
 

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