A LOVE story: How a sculpture came to symbolize Philadelphia

The tale of the LOVE sculpture is a love story unlike any other.

ByBrock Koller WPVI logo
Wednesday, February 14, 2024
A LOVE story: How a sculpture came to symbolize Philadelphia
The tale of the LOVE sculpture is a love story unlike any other.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- It's Valentine's Day and love is in the air in Philadelphia. After all, it's the City of Brotherly Love.

This story was originally published on Valentine's Day Weekend 2020 and has been updated.

There's no symbol that better represents Valentine's Day, or Philly itself, than the LOVE sculpture in Center City.

Yes, the official term is sculpture, not statue. The Association for Public Art (aPa) confirmed to 6abc.com, "Statues are of people or animals, life size or larger. Sculptures basically cover everything else." (So you are still fine to say the 'Rocky Statue' or 'Philly Philly Statue.')

"Our LOVE sculpture is a major part of Philadelphia's identity - both physically in terms of our downtown landscape, and in the way that we connect emotionally with our city. It represents the best of Philadelphia and our deep affection for our hometown," Margot Berg, the longtime Public Art Director of the City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, said. The city announced Berg moved on from her role in 2021.

Also referred to as just LOVE, the sculpture has stood tall in the background of countless selfies, marriage proposals, and wedding ceremonies at its post at 15th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard. It has been part of the stories of tourists and Philadelphians alike, but its own story is also one worth telling.

It's a tale that involves the pioneering vision of the father of actor Kevin Bacon, a determined owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, an artist creating a sign of countercultural freedom, and an inspirational Phillips 66 gas station.

The Start of Love Park

In 1932, Philadelphia native Edmund Bacon was a student at Cornell University earning his bachelor of architecture degree. His senior thesis was called "A Civic Center for Philadelphia."

"Several ideas from his thesis eventually found their way into Philadelphia's urban environment during his career, including the plaza cutting off the diagonal of the (Ben Franklin) Parkway," author Gregory Heller wrote in "Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia."

Bacon served in the Navy in World War II. In 1946, he returned to Philadelphia. A year later, he helped design the "Better Philadelphia Exhibition" which ran for a few weeks at the Gimbels department store in Center City.

"[It] showcased new ideas for revitalizing Philadelphia after decades of depression and war. Conceived by young architects and planners and funded by prominent citizens, the exhibition introduced more than 350,000 people in the metropolitan area, free of charge, to a vision of the city of the future," Rutgers University historian Stephen Nepa wrote for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Bacon then became the director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission in 1949.

FILE: Edmund N. Bacon, left, executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission describing the Market East Project.
AP Photo/Bill Ingraham

"His mark on Philadelphia was perhaps most evident in the planning of Penn Center, a huge development of Philadelphia's downtown core in the 1950's and 60's. The center, comprising offices and hotels, was the largest such project the city had seen since the 1920's," the New York Times wrote upon his death in 2005.

The Penn Center implementation meant the removal of the so-called "Chinese Wall," which as the Times described it was "a network of elevated railroad tracks that divided the city.

"Mr. Bacon's design concepts also led to the development of Market East, Penn's Landing, Society Hill, Independence Mall and the Far Northeast."

But there was one more idea Bacon had up his sleeve - a park design from his Cornell thesis.

A drawing from Bacon's 1932 Cornell University thesis "A Civic Center for Philadelphia." Credit: Edmund N. Bacon Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.
Edmund N. Bacon Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

The park became a reality when it was completed by architect Vincent Kling in 1965. It was dedicated two years later to former President John F. Kennedy.

"Whether Mr. Bacon was pushing for the demolition of the city's infamous Chinese Wall to make way for the modern commercial downtown, arguing for selective redevelopment of a shabby river ward that became known as Society Hill, conceiving of a central city mall anchored by big department stores - the future Market East - or sketching out plans for what became iconic spaces such as Independence Mall and JFK Plaza, he kept one thing foremost in his mind: Philadelphia could be at the top of contemporary American cities, boasting a vibrant center, muscular public design, housing for the middle and upper classes, and rejuvenated green spaces," the American Planning Association said.

His son Kevin, star of the film "Footloose," reflected on his father's legacy to comedian Marc Maron during a podcast in 2017.

"His life's battle was to bring life back into cities," Kevin Bacon said. "It ran through his veins."

When Ed Bacon retired in 1970, his project, JFK Plaza, was now a major part of the Philadelphia landscape.

But while completed structurally, the plaza was still missing something aesthetically - something lovely.

May 4, 1961: Edmund N. Bacon, right, executive director of the Philadelphia city planning commission visits Denver, Colorado.
Denver Post via Getty Images

Love is Born

In 1955, at age 27, artist Robert Indiana wrote the poem "When the Word is Love."

Dent the head/
With the word.
See the lettered scar/
On the skull.
On the bone
(In the beginning)
The straight line,
Wherefrom the rounding
Circle is begat,
But on our tongues/
Never sat.
Yet see the jutting/
Diags do -
Ascendency inversed -
And in the final due,
Lo: the single stroke
Rampant three-pronged
Trinity into infinity.

In a conversation with Indiana, as part of the aPA's Museum Without Walls program, author Adrian Dannatt explained the poem's significance.

"It's almost a description of the geometrical elements that make up the physical composition of this word 'love.' It's very curious because it's almost as if he's unconscious of the fact that this idea was germinating, that he expressed it as a young man, in a poem of all things," Dannatt said.

The poem was the predecessor to a painting that would eventually alter Philadelphia's architectural look forever.

This photo from the Robert Indiana Catalogue Raisonné shows artist Robert Indiana. Artwork ©: Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Robert Indiana Catalogue Raisonné

Indiana, who changed his name from Robert Clark in 1958, took the theme of the poem and created the pop image known as LOVE.

According to the Robert Indiana's website, the word love is a central topic in Indiana's work.

In 1964, Indiana created a series of drawings of the word "love" in graphite and colored pencil. These were the first works depicting the word "love" in the square, two-letters-over-two format: an L and a tilted O, stacked above the letters V and E.

"These drawings were sent as Christmas cards to friends and acquaintances in the art world including Dorothy C. Miller (a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA), Jan van der Marck, Gene Swenson, and Richard Brown Baker. Over the next several months Indiana experimented with "love" - and other words in the same format - painting the first canvases in his LOVE series," Emeline Salama-Caro on behalf of the upcoming Robert Indiana Catalogue Raisonné told 6abc.com. Salama-Carois is assisting in the preparation of the catalogue raisonné, which will focus on a comprehensive list of Indiana's paintings and sculpture.

In 1965, the same year JFK Plaza was completed, MoMA's junior council selected one of Indiana's paintings - a 12-inch red, blue, and green LOVE - to be the image for their Christmas card.

Indiana, who passed away in 2018, told Dannatt that all his work is autobiographical in some ways.

"It's connected with my own life," Indiana said.

That is especially true when it comes to LOVE.

The LOVE painting from the Robert Indiana Catalogue Raisonné. Artwork ©: Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Robert Indiana Catalogue Raisonné

Indiana said his work became very typographic because while working for the Indianapolis Star newspaper in the 1940s he would sit near the composing room. This exposure is what led to the creative positioning of the LOVE letters.

"It gives four letters a little bit of dynamism," Indiana said. "There's nothing as dumb as an 'O' at attention."

Dannatt pointed out that there were many things from Indiana's childhood that the artist was not aware of that would later emerge in his work. Though, Indiana explained that his father's career played a major role in the color scheme of LOVE.

"The 'LOVEs' all come from the fact that my father worked for Phillips 66. My mother would drive my father to work and pick him up. We would pass the Phillips 66 station with a huge circular sign in the sky. The gas pumps were red and green, the uniforms were red and green, the oil cans were red and green, and so it's the red and green Phillips 66 sign against the blue sky is why the first love was red, blue, and green," Indiana said.

Robert Indiana's father worked at a Phillips 66 gas station which inspired his LOVE project.

With a desire to return to his sculptural practice started in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Salama-Caro said Indiana went to Lippincott Foundry, the place that would fabricate his LOVE sculptures from the late 1960s through early 1990s.

In May 1966, LOVE was on display during Indiana's second solo exhibition at The Stable Gallery. But this time it was showcased in different mediums and colors, including, for the first time, a 12-inch aluminum LOVE sculpture. That was just the start. A 12-foot Cor-Ten steel LOVE sculpture produced in 1970 by Lippincott Foundry was put on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Robert Indiana with his 'LOVE' sculpture in Central Park, New York City in 1971.
Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

In 1973, the United States Postal Service released an 8-cent LOVE stamp designed by Indiana. According to his website, 330 million stamps were produced, "for which the artist received a flat fee of a thousand dollars."

A stamp printed in USA shows the Love by Robert Indiana, circa 1973. Artwork ©: Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

The popularity of LOVE led it to become a sign of the era's counterculture movement and, also countless unauthorized products displaying Indiana's image.

"The proliferation of the image led, on one hand, to negative criticism and incorrect assumptions of the artist as a sell-out," his website said. "However, the image's popularity more importantly emphasizes its great resonance with large and diverse audiences, and has become an icon of modern art."

AHAVA: "LOVE" sculpture of Robert Indiana, created in 1977 in Jerusalem. Artwork ©: Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

LOVE Comes to Philly

In 1976, Philadelphia was celebrating its bicentennial.

To commemorate this special occasion, Indiana lent a 6-foot high aluminum red, green, and purple version of his LOVE sculpture to the city. It was placed at JFK Plaza.

"He chose to experiment with different color combinations that echoed his LOVE paintings. In 1973, he made a painting titled "Philadelphia LOVE" and the color combination was red, purple, and green. The painting was completed in 1972 and the sculpture was made in 1975. The colors in the US postal stamp which featured his iconic LOVE image were also red, purple, and green," Salama-Caro told 6abc.com.

The LOVE sculpture at JFK Plaza in 1976. Image from the Robert Indiana Catalogue Raisonné. Artwork ©: Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Robert Indiana Catalogue Raisonné

In his audio recording, Dannatt said Indiana realized the potency and the power of colors.

"Especially colors put together, clashing and combining, so it has this great drama to it. The snap, the crack, and the pop of a classic pop icon," Dannatt said.

The LOVE sculpture remained at JFK Plaza for two years on what the Association for Public Art described as an "extended loan." The loan then ran out in April 1978.

"During (those two years), Indiana's gallery in New York tried to sell the work to the city. When the sale could not be arranged, the gallery had a truck remove LOVE to New York, where a potential buyer was interested in seeing it," the aPa said.

Stephan Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer explained that Indiana's gallery, Galerie Denise René in New York, had been told the city was buying the piece. So from June 1976 to January 1977, the gallery was sending a bill to the city's Bicentennial agency. The agency closed down at the end of 1976.

"Nobody paid anything, or even returned the bill. Crickets from [Mayor] Rizzo folks," Salisbury wrote.

After Rachel Chodorov, the director of the Galerie Denise René and Indiana's agent, tried to negotiate with the city, even offering to help raise funds to no avail, Salisbury said, the gallery was finally given an offer.

"Al Gaudiosi...city representative, finally made a lowball offer, which the gallery said was less than it cost to make the piece in the first place," Salisbury wrote.

And just like that, the LOVE sculpture was gone from Philly.

"An uproar ensued," the aPA said. "The Philadelphia Inquirer and other local media demanded to know why the sculpture had been allowed to slip away."

Fitz Makes Moves

Enter Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr.

Dixon, a philanthropist, civic leader and member of a prosperous Philadelphia family, was focused on bringing an NBA championship to Philadelphia, as it celebrated its 250th anniversary.

He was a graduate of Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square and then went to attend Harvard. He had inherited a fortune from his mother Eleanor Widener Dixon, whose father George Dunton Widener had died on the Titanic.

"As the heir to a meat-packing and railroad fortune, he did not need to earn a living, but after attending Harvard, he taught English and French at his alma mater, Episcopal Academy, where he also coached and served as the athletic director," the New York Times wrote in Dixon's 2006 obituary.

By 1976, Dixon already had been part owner of the Phillies and Eagles. He served as vice chairman for the Flyers during their two NHL Stanley Cup Championship seasons in the mid-70s. Now, he wanted to see the same results for the 76ers, so he purchased the NBA franchise for $8 million.

The new 76ers owner was not the only change in the world of basketball that year. The National Basketball Association merged with the American Basketball Association. At the time, a player by the name of Julius Erving was a member of the ABA's New York Nets.

The Nets not only had to a pay $3.2 million NBA entry fee, but also, according to the league, were required to pay an additional $4.8 million to the New York Knicks for "territorial invasion."

"Unable to afford such a payment, the Nets needed to get creative. Unfortunately for them, their best bargaining chip was Julius Erving," an NBA.com report said.

Dixon saw his opportunity. And, with just 24 hours before the opening game of the 1976-77 season, he brought Erving to Philadelphia for approximately $6.6 million.

Julius Erving shakes hands with the Philadelphia 76ers owner Fitz Eugene Dixon at a press conference in Philadelphia to announce the signing in this Oct. 21, 1976 file photo.
AP Photo

In a Sports Illustrated article from November '78, Erving is called one of Dixon's admirers.

"His presence can be intimidating. It's nothing he does. It's just power," Erving said.

The 76ers reached the NBA finals twice while Dixon was president and Dr. J went on to become an icon in the city.

But there was another icon that Dixon wanted to bring to Philly - more to the point, bring back to the city - the LOVE sculpture.

Bringing LOVE Back

It was written in that 1978 Sports Illustrated article about Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr. that "his devotion to Philadelphia is unquestioned."

It referenced the time when a Philadelphia firefighter was killed. SI reported that Dixon sent a $17,000 check to pay off the man's mortgage.

At the time of the LOVE sculpture's disappearing act, Dixon was also the chairman of the Philadelphia Art Commission - and he wanted that sculpture back.

The Inquirer reported that he quickly got on the phone with city representative Joe LaSala.

"Buy LOVE, Joe. Get it back where it belongs. Whatever it costs, I'll pay for it," Dixon said, according to the paper.

Indiana was willing to return the sculpture for $45,000, a price tag the city said it could not afford at the time.

Dixon offered to pay $35,000 as a compromise.

Fitz Eugene Dixon, right, is all smiles as he talks at a press conference in Philadelphia, in this May 29, 1976 file photo.
AP Photo

"I like it," he told SI. "A lot of other people liked LOVE. And I couldn't imagine the city coming up with the money to pay for it."

LOVE returned to JFK Plaza in May 1978, a month after it was removed.

According to the Inquirer, LaSala said, "It should never have left in the first place."

Protesting the Park

In 2002, at age 92, Ed Bacon would return to his creation, JFK Plaza.

He was returning to protest the city's skateboarding ban at the park, and along with him was Vincent Kling.

"I built this place so that people could enjoy it. And that includes skateboarders," Kling said, according to Heller's book.

Bacon brought along a skateboard. When a police officer noticed this, the book said, she went up to Bacon's group and the gathering news reporters.

"She turned to Bacon and said, 'Don't do this,'" Heller wrote.

The officer then called reinforcements, but no arrests were made.

Per the book:

"With a helmet on his head and a determined look on his face, Bacon read a brief statement in which he declared, 'I conceived Love Park... I make no claim to be a leader, but by God I am a person and I stand up to Mayor Street and tell him to go to Hell and stay there until he sees the light and changes his ways by going to LOVE Park each day with a smile on his face and a warm welcoming handshake, to greet the skateboarders of the world."

Bacon then skateboarded through the park he dreamed up 70 years earlier. For approximately 25 feet.

"He went down and got on a skateboard, tried to get arrested," Kevin Bacon said in 2017. "They put a helmet on him and had a couple of people hold him and rolled him around on a skateboard. I think there's actual video of it. I don't think the cops actually arrested him, but that was his dream."

Ed Bacon had alerted the City Paper about the protest, and according to Heller's book, editor-in-chief Howard Altman and members of his staff were the ones stationed on each side of Bacon, holding his arms.

At the end of his quick skate, he shouted, "Thank you. Thank you. My whole damn life has been worth it just for this moment."

Mayor Jim Kenney would allow skateboarding to return for a short period of time in 2016 before the park closed for renovations.

The city opened Paine's Park to skaters in 2013.

Ed Bacon died of natural causes in Philadelphia at the age of 95.

"I'll run into skaters who will say, 'Oh, your dad was the best. Dude, your dad is such a hero for us, man...People using spaces, public spaces, was really, really important to him," Kevin Bacon said.

A state historical marker honoring the late city planner Edmund Bacon is shown Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2006.
AP Photo/George Widman

A Fresh Look

The LOVE sculpture, with its red, green, and blue colors, was temporarily moved to City Hall's Dilworth Plaza when the 2016 renovation began.

Crews hoisted the piece of art, which weighs more than a thousand pounds, onto a forklift, then slowly moved it with painstaking precision across the street.

"The white pieces of foam protect the paint," moving engineer George Young told Action News in February 2016. "When we walk it across the street, the fork truck has a dampening system. That allows it to move on an almost cushion of air. We just handle it slowly and carefully."

Young's family business had moved hundreds of pieces of the city's art and artifacts over the course of decades, including the Liberty Bell. George Young passed away in 2018.

After staying in its temporary location for a short time, the LOVE sculpture was then taken out of view for repairs as LOVE Park was getting a redesign.

LOVE returned to the park in February 2018.

"LOVE" is moved from a truck to a pedestal during reinstallation in JFK Plaza, Feb. 13, 2018. Artwork ©: Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma

"School children cheered and those gathered spontaneously sang the fight song for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles as a forklift placed the sculpture atop a pedestal," the Action News report said.

But on closer inspection, the sculpture looked different than it did when it was last in the public eye. It was no longer red, green, and blue. It was once again red, green, and purple, as it was in 1976.

Shown is the Robert Indiana sculpture "LOVE" in John F. Kennedy Plaza on Monday, May 21, 2018. Artwork ©: Morgan Art Foundation Ltd./Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

"The City of Philadelphia discovered that sections of the sculpture had been incorrectly painted blue during previous restorations. Representatives of the artist informed the City of the original color scheme and archival photographs from Temple University confirmed the original use of purple instead of blue," the aPA said.

Edith Dixon, the widow of Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr, was a private donor who made the LOVE sculpture restoration possible, the City of Philadelphia said.

LOVE For All

Philadelphia's LOVE sculpture once again looked the way Robert Indiana had intended.

"Robert Indiana often spoke about how very fond he was of the City of Brotherly Love and shared that he was very proud to have one of his LOVE sculptures installed. The colors of this LOVE was very special to the artist," Salama-Caro said.

In this Sept. 24, 2013, file photo, artist Robert Indiana, known for his LOVE artwork, poses in front of that painting at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art.
AP Photo/Lauren Casselberry, File

In 2015, another of his sculptures was brought to the City of Brotherly Love.

AMOR was installed atop the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for Pope Francis' visit.

This photo shows Robert Indiana's AMOR sculpture in a park outside Philadelphia's Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016.
AP Photo/Michael R. Sisak

AMOR, which means "love" in both Pope Francis' native Spanish and the Church's traditional Latin, was moved to its permanent home in Sister Cities Park at 18th Street and the Ben Franklin Parkway.

Philadelphia's LOVE sculpture at LOVE Park is just one of many around the world - including a second version in the city on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The Robert Indiana Catalogue Raisonné will have the full list once completed.

"His dream is to have these LOVE sculptures in every city in the world. He wants this message to be absolutely universal," Dannatt said.

Indiana responded, "It would be my intention that everybody should have LOVE."

The LOVE sculpture inspired this image that adorns the wall of the 6abc Action News newsroom.