The Magicians' Code: How Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens Is Preserved, Tile by Tile
“You’re not working fast enough!”
“Stop being so neat about it. That’s not the way we’re doing it here.”
“Go big! Loosen up!”
Artist Isaiah Zagar is many things, but a silent leader he is not. On the days that the 80-year-old Zagar checks in with the preservation team at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a mosaicked wonderland of color and quirk that made our list of 40 places under 40 years old in February of 2019 and is part of our Distinctive Destinations program, enthusiastic commands such as these reverberate throughout. But when one is repairing porcelain tiles under the watch of an artist possessed with such singular vision that his distinctive mosaicking process bears his own name (the Zagar Method)—especially on that artist’s most majestic work—what else would you expect?
“It’s really intense,” says Emily Smith, executive director of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. As an organization, the Gardens not only operates the main location as a nonprofit museum, but also works to document and preserve Zagar’s 220 other public works in Philadelphia. “He’s very demanding. But it’s exciting to be able to learn [the techniques] from the artist."
That’s the rare opportunity that Smith and the three-person preservation team, led by Stacey Holder, have been afforded. Repairing the many tiles, glass bottles, ceramics, folk art, and bike wheels exposed to the elements in the Gardens’ 3,000-square-foot outdoor space is no easy task. Winters with vicious freeze/thaw cycles like this past one make the job even harder. And that’s before getting to the normal wear and tear that comes from 165,000 visitors a year, a recipe for plenty of both intentional and unintentional damage. Holder’s team often spends the hours before the Magic Gardens opens at 11 a.m. most days getting in as many repairs as they can.
But if anyone encounters an issue, the artist himself is there to offer his thoughts. For a space that Zagar has imbued with so much of himself, that bursts at the seams with his unfiltered thoughts and emotions, the privilege cannot be understated.
“It’s very important for us to maintain the Zagar aesthetic while preserving Isaiah's work,” says Holder. “It took Isaiah a couple years to trust us to perform any repair work on our own, but he's opened up and given us a lot of freedom … A lot of the learning process was just about not being afraid to make mistakes.”
When Smith is guiding a newcomer through the Magic Gardens, she tells them “to think of the site as walking through someone’s diary.” If the Magic Gardens is a diary, its first page lies a few blocks away, in a three-story structure that unabashedly bears Zagar’s mark.
After training as an artist at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York and three years of Peace Corps service in Peru, Isaiah Zagar returned to his hometown of Philadelphia in 1968, purchasing a property at 402 South Street. However, the return was not a happy one. That year, Zagar suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Doctors diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and insisted he keep working as a means of therapy.
So, Zagar did. He devised an original two-phase method of creating mosaics that prized spontaneity and idiosyncrasy. Tiles and mirrors would be arranged with little regard for color or shape and temporarily secured to the backing surface with small globs of Mapei Type 1 adhesive, keeping the spaces in between as clear as possible. After waiting 24 hours for the adhesive to dry, a grouting mixture of sand and cement fills in the gaps to solidify the bond between tile and wall.
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Zagar began mosaicking in the building’s bathroom, but soon his art was spilling into the hallways, then onto its facade. The building would eventually become the Eye's Gallery where Zagar and his wife, Julia, sell international clothing, jewelry, and folk art to this day.
In 1991, Zagar brought his techniques to the vacant lots near his studio at 1020 South Street, incorporating found objects along with tiles and mirrors. The South Street community appreciated the vibrancy that the Magic Gardens had added, helping fend off a 2002 demolition attempt from the Boston-based owner of the lots, even though the site would not open to the public until 2008.
While minimal thought goes into the placement of tiles in the Zagar Method, the Magic Gardens are far from devoid of subcutaneous meaning. “When you start to look closely at this work, you start to see all the stories, and the jokes, and the people who were in [Zagar’s] life, and what he was listening to that day, and what news story was going on,” says Smith. “It’s like bearing witness to someone’s life.”
Smith joined the Magic Gardens staff in 2009 as one of five part-time members working beneath Ellen Owens, the executive director at the time. Even in those days, the site’s earliest as a public museum, maintaining the condition of the site was a priority. Both Smith and Holder were art school graduates with no preservation experience, yet were enlisted to find and document the parts of the Gardens most in need of restoration starting in 2011. Smith recalls roaming the grounds with a repurposed broom handle known as “The Poker,” testing parts of the murals with gentle prods and recording their findings on a clipboard.
As Smith and Holder grew into larger roles, they placed more and more of an emphasis on the matter of the Magic Gardens’ future. “When I became the director in 2014,” says Smith, “I knew it was really important to put preservation in the forefront. The site’s in pretty good condition now, but if we’re going to be around for 50 years, how are we going to be able to maintain this place?”
$60,000 in grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was the boost they needed to begin answering that question. The NEA funds would support two full years of condition reports, consultations with engineers, and, of course, restoration work. It allowed them to bring Don Howlett and Lisa Stone, described by Holder as “the most qualified art environment preservationists in the field,” to the Magic Gardens for a week. While in Philadelphia, they provided not only essential training advice for the fledgling preservationists, but also a base-level maintenance plan that could evolve as the need arose.“That has been one of the biggest takeaways for me: knowing that spaces like ours are out there and are so unique and important but have no foundation or structure from which they can build upon,” says Holder. "Care and maintenance are so essential in their survival, and not all of these spaces are lucky enough to be planted in the middle of a major city like ours.”
Some art environments that were as fortunate as the Magic Gardens served as sources of inspiration, setting an example of what a well-preserved space can be. These included Pasaquan in Buena Vista, Georgia, Watts Tower in Los Angeles, and the Mary Nohl House in Milwaukee.
In the Magic Gardens’ case, successful preservation involves constantly replacing glass bottles (the most vulnerable items) and delaminated sections of tiles and glass bottles as well as installing flashing wherever possible to limit water infiltration underneath. Though Zagar himself appreciates how tile faces that pop off give his art a life of their own, for the sake of the installation, it’s not something the preservation team can let go unchecked. Special care is taken for tiles hand-painted by Zagar, and if a damaged tile is of a type meant to stay indoors, Zagar will replicate it on an outdoor tile.
“When you start to look closely at this work, you start to see all the stories, and the jokes, and the people who were in [Isaiah Zagar’s] life, and what he was listening to that day, and what news story was going on ... It’s like bearing witness to someone’s life.”Emily Smith
Bottles, tiles, and grout are only one aspect of the Gardens, however. Preserving the one-of-a-kind pieces of folk art the space displays is another matter entirely. Ceramic items from Mexico, Indonesia, China, South Africa, and many other places reflect just how much Zagar’s travels molded his life and career. But some of these items were made for environments far warmer and drier than Philadelphia. And what do you do when an unwitting visitor shatters a unique plate made by an artist thousands of miles away?
“We want the space to be as open and free as possible for everybody because that’s the spirit in which it was made, but the way people often interact with the space is not as respectful as it should be,” says Smith.Isaiah and Julia Zagar are addressing this issue in the most honest way possible: by going straight to the source. They’ve made multiple trips to Mexico (where thousands of pieces at the Magic Garden originated) and purchased replacements from the original artists. If the artist has passed away or no longer works, the Zagars instead purchase from a family member.
These days, the most pressing existential threats to the Gardens have been mollified, and generous public donations have facilitated the creation of a dedicated Preservation Fund. But there’s still plenty for Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens to do as an organization: Zagar’s 220 other public pieces around the city need attention too.
One site in immediate danger is the Painted Bride Art Center, founded in 1969 to give artists from underrepresented communities a platform for their work to be noticed. Zagar spent nine years mosaicking its exterior. When a developer began arranging to purchase the building in 2017 with the intent to demolish it and replace it with condos, Smith and the Magic Gardens fought hard for its preservation, even offering to handle the necessary work for any current or future owner of the property at no charge. Ultimately, they failed to secure a historic designation last September, losing a final 5-4 vote by Philadelphia's Historical Commission despite considerable support. Though the sale has not been officially processed, the future of the Painted Bride’s building appears grim.
“It’s something that feels very sensitive to me—not just about Isaiah’s work, but preservation in general, and how historic places are constantly under threat just by existing, usually,” says Smith. “I think it’s an age-old battle. And then you lose something incredible and look back on it in a decade and wonder why you did that.”
While the advocacy work continues elsewhere, the future of the Magic Gardens is secure. And as long as Zagar is around to guide the preservation efforts with his inimitable passion, the Magic Gardens can adapt and expand in a way that Smith and Holder know is faithful to how it was originally envisioned.“So much of preservation for us is dependent on learning and documenting while we have our artist alive here with us,” says Smith. “That’s a huge part of our team—taking advantage of every moment that we have with him.”