Unnatural elements

Teen­agers have re­peatedly de­faced the Thor­eau’s Hut art in­stall­a­tion in Pennypack Park with van­dal­ism and trash.

Re­cent events at the Thor­eau’s Hut pub­lic art in­stall­a­tion in Pennypack Park are not the kind of civil dis­obedi­ence that the name­sake 19th cen­tury au­thor had in mind when he urged people to chal­lenge un­just gov­ern­ment.

For one thing, Henry Dav­id Thor­eau would nev­er have been caught booz­ing in the woods on the banks of Walden Pond.

Un­for­tu­nately for art and nature lov­ers, however, many loc­al teen­agers don’t share the tee­total­ing writer’s sens­ib­il­ity for sobri­ety. Ap­par­ently, nor do they re­spect the thought and ef­fort ex­er­ted by artist Ed Lev­ine eight years ago in cre­at­ing the hut, along with two re­lated sculp­tures, in the woods be­hind the Pennypack En­vir­on­ment­al Cen­ter.

On suc­cess­ive week­ends last month, two long­time vo­lun­teer park ad­voc­ates, Jim and Sandy Stew­art, found costly van­dal­ism and drink­ing-re­lated debris at the Thor­eau’s Hut site. In re­sponse, the couple re­por­ted the dam­age via e-mail to Jim Ry­an, vice pres­id­ent of the Friends of Pennypack Park.

Ry­an filed a po­lice re­port and con­tac­ted the city’s De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation, which had been un­aware of any van­dal­ism is­sues at the site.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Cen­ter is staffed by Parks and Re­cre­ation em­ploy­ees and loc­ated on Ver­ree Road, just south of Bloom­field Av­en­ue.

Youths routinely hold night­time drink­ing parties dur­ing warm-weath­er months at many sites in the 1,600-acre park — in ad­di­tion to oth­er pub­lic parks, re­cre­ation cen­ters, rail­road cor­ridors, school­yards, in­dus­tri­al parks and se­cluded areas around the North­east.

They’ve done so for gen­er­a­tions.

But this case seems to be dif­fer­ent if only be­cause the site in ques­tion is truly one-of-a-kind. The En­vir­on­ment­al Cen­ter’s vo­lun­teer ad­vis­ory com­mit­tee, with back­ing from the Fair­mount Park Art As­so­ci­ation, com­mis­sioned Lev­ine, of Ver­mont, to design and build the art in­stall­a­tion in 2003.

“The feel­ing among the [com­mit­tee], I think, was there’s very little pub­lic art in North­east Phil­adelphia,” said Peter Kur­tz, the En­vir­on­ment­al Cen­ter’s youth de­vel­op­ment and edu­ca­tion spe­cial­ist. “Can you name an­oth­er one?”

Though owned by the city, the in­stall­a­tion is one of hun­dreds main­tained by the Fair­mount Park Art As­so­ci­ation, a private, non-profit or­gan­iz­a­tion foun­ded in 1872 to cul­tiv­ate pub­lic art. A full de­scrip­tion of the in­stall­a­tion is avail­able via www.fpaa.org.

Thor­eau’s Hut is 15 feet high, 10 feet wide and 15 feet deep, echo­ing the di­men­sions of the rus­tic Mas­sachu­setts cab­in where Thor­eau lived for more than two years in the mid-1840s and which sup­plied the sub­ject, if not the in­spir­a­tion, for his icon­ic Walden.

The rep­lica hut is made mostly of wood, brick and flag­stone on a con­crete found­a­tion and is open to the ele­ments — un­like Thor­eau’s real cab­in.

It has wooden floor­boards, thick pil­lars, pitched eaves, a couple of wooden benches and a mock hearth.

Nearby in­stall­a­tions in­clude Benches, a series of three large wooden struc­tures suit­able for sit­ting; and Bird Blind, a 9-foot-high, 19-foot-wide covered struc­ture of­fer­ing vis­it­ors a con­cealed view of the sur­round­ing wild­life.

On a June 5 walk in the park, the Stew­arts ob­served empty beer cans and trash at Thor­eau Hut, graf­fiti carved in­to the wood and rem­nants of a small fire — as if someone had put flame to a card­board beer car­ton.

On June 14, the Stew­arts saw more party-re­lated lit­ter. Also, boards from the floor of the hut and benches had been torn out and tossed aside.

A North­east Times re­port­er vis­ited the site on June 23 and saw a charred log and more beer con­tain­ers.

“Kids drink­ing and the as­so­ci­ated van­dal­ism un­for­tu­nately is a con­stant in the park. I have writ­ten a let­ter to the loc­al po­lice dis­trict alert­ing them to this spot and the [park] rangers have kicked a few people out of here,” Kur­tz said. “But [the prob­lem] is sea­son­al and cyc­lic­al. [En­force­ment] has to be con­stant. We went through a peri­od of six months or so where we had no drink­ing.”

In gen­er­al, the En­vir­on­ment­al Cen­ter su­per­visor said, the art in­stall­a­tions have not been par­tic­u­larly trouble­some spots over the years.

“We have had minor van­dal­ism and main­ten­ance is­sues,” Kur­tz said. “I check these usu­ally once a week.”

One time, however, Kur­tz re­moved Christ­mas stock­ings that someone had stapled to one of the hut’s wooden columns.

Barry Bessler, chief of staff to Parks and Re­cre­ation First Deputy Com­mis­sion­er Mark Fo­cht, echoed Kur­tz’s as­sess­ment of the site as a trouble spot.

“There’s not a pat­tern to any­thing we’ve seen in the past,” Bessler said. “I un­der­stand a po­lice re­port’s been taken on this. We’ll take care of any re­pairs that we’re able to. Any­thing cre­at­ing a pub­lic safety haz­ard will be pri­or­it­ized.”

As part of the Art As­so­ci­ation’s main­ten­ance pro­gram, a staff mem­ber vis­its each pub­lic art site at least once a year to as­sess and plan any needed re­pairs, ac­cord­ing to Laura Grif­fith, the as­so­ci­ation’s as­sist­ant dir­ect­or.

“When you put something out in pub­lic like that, es­pe­cially in an area that’s re­l­at­ively isol­ated … you know that when something’s in the pub­lic realm, something can hap­pen,” Grif­fith said.

“We do the main­ten­ance, but the city owns them, so it gets com­plic­ated.”

Kur­tz thinks that the most re­cent struc­tur­al van­dal­ism may have been a product of op­por­tun­ity. Some of the boards that com­prise the hut have softened due to mois­ture. Sev­er­al floor­boards sag un­der­foot.

“You’re talk­ing kids and talk­ing op­por­tun­ity,” Kur­tz said. ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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