Monday, February 27, 2012

Visiting Philadelphia's Magic Gardens

The entrance to Philadelphia's Magic Gardens: not exactly subtle.

Visiting Philadelphia's Magic Gardens is not unlike stepping through the proverbial looking glass: it's a whole different world on the other side. Dan and I visited this folk art paradise on a cloudy day in Philly, which was perfect because we had this little wonderland completely to ourselves. 

Chairs for sitting and nooks for exploring. 

The Magic Garden is an outdoor mosaicked sculpture garden that takes up half a block of South Street in Philadelphia's Headhouse neighborhood. It's the work of artist Isaiah Zagar who, with the help of his wife Julia, transformed what was once an empty lot into an extraordinary labyrinth of "statues, bicycle wheels, colorful glass bottles, hand-made tiles, and thousands of glittering mirrors." 

Cozy chairs and interesting little nooks really invite viewers to interact with the space, which is perfect for people like me who like to touch everything. (IS IT SOFT? IS IT PRETTY? DOES IT SPARKLE? LET ME TOUCH IT! Honestly, I cannot tell you how many times I was scolded as a child for touching things at museums, or reaching out to stroke the noses of Disney's Animatronic creatures. Hundreds, maybe thousands.)

One of the many paths leading through the Magic Gardens.

Although there are a lot of references to Mexican and Aztec art (Day of the Dead skeletons are a frequent motif, especially in the indoor gallery), entering the Magic Gardens feels a lot like sneaking into a mermaid's grotto while she's off sunning herself on a rock somewhere - there are lots of cool blues and greens, with soft pink and peach tones throughout. The black line figures are loose, watery shapes, sort of like my own after the giant Philly cheesesteak I inhaled in approximately 0.3 seconds.

I'm pretty sure that I have that exact same Walt Disney World plate
 displayed prominently on my bedroom wall  packed up in a box somewhere.

It took Zagar fourteen years to complete the garden, which is not surprising considering the number of intricate details that make up the space - literally every corner is covered, even up to the third floor which, unfortunately, is not accessible to visitors, though it's totally worth craning your neck to catch a glimpse of all the curious little objects he used to create the space.

Me: "Let's sit on this toad stool and take a picture!"
Dan: "You know it's not actually a toad stool right?"
Me: "Don't kill my dreams."

When we first came upon it, my immediate reaction was This is going to be just like Metelkova. I was expecting part artsy, part hippie, part commune - but where Metelkova was (and is) a group of people who (successfully) fought to turn a former military barracks into a cultural center, the Magic Gardens are the work of one man who almost singlehandedly revitalized an entire neighborhood. Zagar's mosaics are plastered on walls all over Headhouse, lending a significantly bright and gentle touch to an area that might otherwise be overwhelmed by sex shops, cheesy boutiques, and a fairly gigantic Whole Foods grocery store.

Nothing says "I can get out of this chair with ease" like a double-chinned scowl.

Altogether, the Magic Gardens are well worth the $5 entrance fee, especially when you can truly make your visit last for hours: if I had known food and drinks were allowed within the garden, I definitely would have packed a little picnic to enjoy in one of the many secret alcoves. I mean, that would just take the cake as the perfect playground for children and childlike adults such as myself adults alike: sweet treats inside an artist's imagination? Yes, please!

The Magic Gardens are located at 1020 South Street, Philadelphia. Our visit was made possible by Visit Philly, Philadelphia's official site for visitors and tourism information.


  1. wow, never knew that existed! And by the way... cute glasses, and hair, and coat!

    1. It's really neat! I think you would enjoy it - definitely stop in if you're in the northeast!

      And thank you for the sweet compliment! I really appreciate it, especially since 3/4s of the photos Dan takes of me all end up looking like that last one! ;-)

  2. The Magic Gardens looks like so much fun! This is totally something I would do in a new city. Love the shot of you and Dan!

    1. Thanks Molly! The gardens are so neat - such a great way to spend an afternoon! I would really recommend it, especially since you don't live too far away (Boston, right?) and could do a little weekend getaway or something fun like that!

      I appreciate the kind words!


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