Taking up over half a block along the bohemian South Street, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is immediately recognizable at a glance. The entire structure is covered in colorful mosaic tiles, appearing straight out of a dream. And for a fee of $10, visitors have the chance to step inside and explore.
Started by local artist Isaiah Zagar in the early 1990s, the Magic Gardens is not so easy to categorize. It’s part art gallery and part sculpture garden, yet not definitively one or the other. But however you want to label it, the space has since become synonymous with Philly’s creative scene. And it’s easily one of the most unique things you can experience during your time in the city.
Visiting Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
While, at over 3,000 square feet, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is easily the largest of Zagar’s mosaic projects, it’s far from the only one. Zagar regularly decorates buildings and public walls across Philadelphia and his creations number in the hundreds.
He first started decorating buildings with mosaics in the ’60s, right here on South Street. Upon returning from a stint with the Peace Corps in Peru, Zagar and his wife rented a derelict building to run a Peruvian folk arts shop. And this is also where Zagar first experimented with what was to become his trademark decorative style.
His passion for mosaics and ‘found object’ art was sparked as a student when his art teacher assigned the class to search through debris for potential pieces they could use. And just about everywhere you look within Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens today, you can spot colorful combinations of tiles, international folk art and everyday objects.
Stepping inside, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The space consists both an indoor and outdoor section. And the first room visitors encounter, the Middle Gallery, is the closest thing here to your standard art museum. Zagar’s art is displayed neatly on the walls, while informational plaques detail the building’s history.
At the time of my visit, I was also delighted to find a special exhibition dedicated to Mexican folk art. The objects on display reminded me of my visit to Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Popular, a museum entirely dedicated to folk art from across the country.
Entering the back gallery, I found a small room projecting a short documentary about Isaiah Zagar, his artistic philosophy and the history of the project. It was here that I learned that the entire space was once in jeopardy in the early 2000s.
As the story goes, Zagar was renting the space to use as his art gallery, which is when he began amassing a large collection of found art to display in the vacant lots outside.
But in 2002, the landlord put the land up for sale and demanded that Zagar take everything down. By then, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens had already become a staple of the city’s art scene. And fortunately for everyone involved, the local community gathered together to purchase the land and turn it into a nonprofit organization.
The Sculpture Garden
The real highlight of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is its outdoor space. While you won’t find any plants here, the various sculptures on display are what gives the ‘Gardens’ its name. As you would expect, the entire area is covered in mosaics. But aside from the tiles, you’ll also find colorful bottles, bicycle wheels (sourced from a local bicycle shop) and folk art figurines from around the world.
While much of the art on display throughout Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens appears to be somewhat random and spontaneous, much of it was put together with a specific meaning in mind. For example, numerous faces can be spotted around the gardens. Many of them appear disjointed and abstract (like a Picasso painting formed with tiles), but they’re supposedly meant to resemble Zagar’s family and close friends.
The outdoor area functions as a miniature labyrinth, with stairs taking the visitor up and down and through corridors and tunnels. And with so many small details to admire, you’ll likely find yourself retracing your steps multiple times.
Walking through the grottoes, I noticed an owl, Guan Yin statues and skeleton figurines from Mexico. While the overall area isn’t huge, it’s worth taking your time to go slowly to spot as much as you can.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens was greatly inspired by projects like Watts Towers by Simon Rodia, Clarence Schmidt’s Mirrored Hope or Casa da Flor by Gabriel Joaquim dos Santos. All these projects were created by individual visionaries who utilized found objects to create their very own eccentric ‘dream houses.’
Walking through the area, it was bewildering to think about how much time, effort and energy went in to creating such a place. While I have yet to visit the other ‘dream houses’ mentioned above, I remembered the massive sculpture gardens of artist Bunleua Sulilat that I saw in Thailand and Laos. While the Sulilat was untrained, all it took was an idea and unrelenting determination over decades to create his unique and magical parks which astonish visitors to this day.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is a creative work that can never be replicated or be put on display at a museum or gallery. Whether or not this particular style of art is up your alley, it’s worth a visit to witness what a person can accomplish with a creative vision and years of persistent hard work.
When it come to touring Philadelphia architecture, one of the best places to stay would be Society Hill. It’s one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and is full of well-preserved architecture from the colonial era. Just to the north are Independence Hall and Liberty Square. And to the south of the neighborhood is South Street, one of Philly’s most popular districts for nightlife and the arts.
Also consider staying somewhere nearby City Hall. It’s located on Broad Street, Philadelphia’s busiest street where you can find a number of major landmarks and also metro stations. Also nearby is the historical Old City district.
Other popular areas include Rittenhouse Square and Chinatown. And just to the west of downtown, the University City area, home to the Penn Museum and Drexel University, is also worthy of consideration.
All of the above-mentioned neighborhoods could be considered central Philadelphia. In general, the central area of the city is clean, safe and pleasant to explore. If you want to stay further away, though, be sure to do thorough research on that area. Philly has a lot of rough neighborhoods that you’re better off avoiding altogether.