This weekend, the space in front of the Art Museum is buzzing with activity, and it’s more than just tourists running the Rocky steps.
Dozens of workers are busy painting pavement, setting up tables, stringing lights in trees and otherwise preparing eight acres of public space for the third season of the pop-up park known as The Oval.
The theme for the Eakins Oval park this year is “Summer Kaleidoscope,” and features a giant ground mural, a beer garden, giant chess and checkers, movie screenings, ping-pong tables, food trucks, mini golf and — new for 2015 — a miniature disc golf course.
‘Between Welcome America and Made in America’
After the July 15 launch, the park will be open every Wednesday to Sunday through August 23. The six-week season is a full week longer than last year, but the schedule isn’t really left up to chance.
“We get the time between Welcome America and Made in America,” explained Fairmount Park Conservancy special event coordinator Erin Nardini, referring to the two festivals that bookend the summer with open-air music performances on the Ben Franklin Parkway. (In past years, the garden has made a return during late September and early October weekends, but Pope Francis’ visit probably means that won’t happen in 2015.)
Nardini and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation concessions manager Marc Wilken are responsible for all the programming at the outdoor space, which is managed in a unique partnership between the two organizations — one a public city agency, the other a private nonprofit.
The idea for The Oval originally came about during a 2013 brainstorming session around a Penn-Praxis study called “More Park, Less Way: An Action Plan to Increase Urban Vibrancy on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.” After the William Penn Foundation provided a small grant, the park was thrown together in less than six weeks. It was such a success that corporate sponsorship was quickly lined up and year two brought double the number of visitors to the space.
Nardini and Wilken began planning for the third incarnation back in April. While plenty of pre-scheduled programming is on the calendar for 2015, including karaoke, face-painting, Visit Philly happy hours and live music, there’s less than before.
“We realized we didn’t need to pre-plan quite so much stuff — people were enjoying just doing their own things, on their own schedule,” noted Kathryn Ott Lovell, executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy.
Several of the activities visitors can do on their own are anchored by the 25,000-square-foot mural painted across what was once a plain parking lot. At one end is a water feature, where kids (and anyone else) can splash and cool off. The fountains are abutted by a tricycle maze — a labyrinth-like pattern of interlocking paths, on which kids can ride their own trikes or hop on one that’s provided. Commissioned by the Mural Arts Program, the design also incorporates the popular life-size chess and checkers boards.
This year’s mural is by Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn, Baltimore-based artist-partners who specialize in public artwork.
“Mural Arts came to us and asked us if we were interested,” said Truhn. “That organization is awesome. It’s amazing that murals provide a bunch of full-time jobs in Philadelphia.”
Truhn and Unterhalter — who interned with Mural Arts for six months in 2007 — have been working together for the past four years, and have created outdoor art in cities up and down the East Coast. For The Oval, they came up with a design that incorporated all the provided specs and was attractive, but could also be executed fast.
Happily, the two women don’t have to do all the painting on their own. They’re being helped this weekend by kids participating in the Mural Arts’ summer camp program.
Jada, 17, is a senior at the Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts. On Friday she was busily painting geometric shapes onto the pavement next to Domenique, also 17, a recent graduate of the Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School. It’s both teenagers’ first summer working with Mural Arts. Both want to pursue careers as artists and see this as an opportunity for some fun, real-life experience.
Pop-up beer garden
Not everything at The Oval is for young folks. Along the north side of the painted mural will be a beer garden run by the Trocadero. In addition to the liquor license and temporary catering permit necessary for a pop-up concession stand, the Troc brings connections to many bands and helps book live music acts.
Centered around a bar built out of construction scaffolding, the beer garden this year will feature several open-air “rooms” featuring sofas and benches made out of more than 4,200 empty bulb crates. Landscape architecture firm Gale Nurseries had the black plastic crates left over from a “Bulbs for Bucks” program that saw a million daffodil bulbs planted throughout the county, and had been looking for a way to repurpose them.
Architect Brian Dragon, who also designed last year’s Oval beer garden, saw this as the perfect opportunity. He’s also crafting around 190 custom cushions to make sitting on the crates comfortable — this weekend will be dedicated to cutting multi-colored vinyl and wrapping it around reusable foam, then attaching that to plywood to make sofas and benches.
In between the seating will be crate walls of varying height, each topped with living plants and flowers in various hues that complement the central mural.
The beer garden will be open Wednesday through Saturday. Fridays from 5-8 PM bring Visit Philly happy hour, with discounts on Yards and Victory beer, and on Saturdays there’s Quizzo from 4-6 PM.
Also, a rotating slate of food trucks will vend at the site from 11 AM-10 PM every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. From noon-7 PM, Saturday and Sunday, the food truck lineup features winners of the Vendy Awards. There’s also a Greensgrow food truck farmers’ market from 2-6 PM each Saturday.
Disc golf, movie nights, more
On the other side of the mural from the beer garden will be both a mini golf course and a small disc golf course. The latter is new this year, and was spearheaded by the people who run Sedgley Woods, a sprawling, 27-hole disc golf course in Fairmount Park. The Oval’s version will have nine holes, although as of Friday, it wasn’t yet clear how or where the course would run.
Every Friday is movie night, with a different film showing on a large outdoor screen from 9 to 11 PM. The series kicks off with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure on July 17, and there’s a special Indego promotion to go along: anyone who shows up dressed as Pee Wee Herman will be entered to win a free 12-month membership to the bike share program. Also, for that night only, there will be a special Indego corral set up, so that anyone who rides a bike over will be able to drop it off there (there are usually only 15 Indego docking spots available).
Other scheduled activities include exercise classes like yoga and cardio kickboxing, art classes, tennis lessons with Philly’s professional tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms, youth soccer scrimmages and storytelling hosted by the Free Library. The full schedule is here [PDF], and detailed descriptions are available at The Oval’s website.