What’s one man’s junk is another man’s treasure…
When it comes to attractions in my hometown of Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the requisite cheesesteak are usually the items of interest for most people. However, there is so much more to see and do in this great city including a place that I myself wasn’t aware of it until last month-Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Philadelphia along with four summers there as a college student and yet I had no idea about this genuine treasure trove that is a 10 minute walk from the Liberty Bell.
When planning things to do on my short and rather impromptu fall trip home, I went to Google to search out something unique and that is how I came across these truly magical gardens which are located on South Street, an area that is known for its bars, restaurants, and clubs. Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is the work of mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar. They span three city lots and include both indoor galleries and a massive outdoor labyrinth. The mosaics are made up of everything from kitchen tiles to bike wheels, Latin American art to china plates.
Zagar and his wife Julia moved to South Street more than 40 years ago when the area was planned to be demolished by the city in order to create highway 676 which would link I-76 and I-95. As a result of the planned construction, the neighborhood was pretty barren and dangerous. However, the Zagars were some of the first people to come to this area and pour their hard work and efforts into it in order to turn its image around. They opened the Eyes Gallery on 402 South Street in 1968 and this was the first property that Isaiah would mosaic. The work of Latin American artists is still showcased and sold here.
Personally, it was really neat to learn that Zagar and his wife were actually Peace Corps volunteers. They served as volunteers in Peru shortly after its founding in the early 1960s. Having just been there myself and a fan of all things Latin America, I loved seeing all the Latin American art and decor that was represented.
After the Eyes Gallery, Isaiah and Julia would go on to purchase and rent out several other buildings as well as going on to create other mosaiced spaces and public murals. Over the next 14 years he would begin creating the Magic Gardens. In 2002, the landowner of the two vacant lots wanted to sell the land due to rising property values on South Street. Together with members of the neighborhood, Isaiah was able to purchase the lots and from this Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens were created and today it serves as a space dedicated to preserving Isaiah’s works and also teaching the public about mosaic and folk art.
From the street you would never imagine the sheer size and scope of the gardens. They stretch far up and also go down, essentially to what would be a basement. The fact that one man created all of this is truly incredible. The gardens are a true testament that even from junk and trash, genuine beauty can be created. Wine bottles, chipped pottery, flat bicycle tires-sometimes these things are worth saving.
While I am an avid art lover and museum enthusiast, I still adored my visit to the Magic Gardens. Sometimes it’s seeing non-traditional art that makes you appreciate the art medium all the more. This is definitely a place that would appeal to anyone because truly, very few of us could ever produce something like this in our lifetime. Have your cheesesteak, snap a picture of the Liberty Bell, but definitely stop here too for it’s a place that many Philadelphia locals don’t even know about.
Even if you don’t have time to go inside, I still recommend passing by the Gardens on South Street as you can still view some of the incredible mosaics.
Note: A couple of weeks ago I bought my first iphone. As I was traveling light to Philadelphia, I didn’t want to lug my DSLR with me so I decided to try out the iphone camera on my weekend visit. I was quite pleased with the results. Unfortunately, the bleak, gray Philadelphia skies couldn’t be helped.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
1020 South Street Philadelphia, PA. 19147
$7 (adults) $5 (students and seniors) $3 (ages 6-12)
FREE for children 5 and under
For up to date hours click here