PHILADELPHIA—The mural that looms over Courtroom B in Family Court leaves no room for moral ambiguity.

In it, a white-haired judge lectures a young ne'er-do-well with downcast eyes. You can almost hear the thunder of his words:

Apply yourself, young man. Become a doctor or teacher, a farmer or welder, and you could walk in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin.

But you're doomed if you keep shooting craps in the street.

"Must've been a big vice in the 1930s," said Mario D'Adamo, the deputy administrator of Family Court, looking up at the mural, which brings to life the judge's words and more in 133 square feet of canvas.

D'Adamo was showing Ben Leech of the Preservation Alliance the hidden art of Family Court.

This mural and others are ghosts from the Great Depression that the Philadelphia Historical Commission recently deemed worthy of special status.

Like most of the art in the 72-year-old Family Court, it is never seen by most people.

Courtroom B, where judges hear criminal cases committed by adults against juveniles, is generally off-limits to the public because of the sensitive nature of cases. Other murals, too, are in places that are tucked away or private, like the changing rooms of judges.

Senior Judge Abram Frank Reynolds has a mural by noted Philadelphia muralist Benton Spruance hanging over his desk in his chambers.

But an ambitious plan to recast Family Court as a luxury hotel will have the added benefit of opening up the building's art to the general public.


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The exterior of Family Court has been under the protection of the city's historical commission since 1971. But much of the interior, including all 37 murals, plus many lighting fixtures and other details like handrails and duct grilles, was designated only in 2011 as historically significant.

That means whoever wins the city contract to take over and renovate the building on Logan Square must protect its historical features.

"This was the right thing to do for the city to maintain this cultural asset," Leech said. "The populist spirit of the murals really makes it a unique building."

'Things you respect'

Three groups of developers submitted proposals Wednesday to take over the building and convert the space into a luxury hotel.

The fact that the murals, each telling a small morality tale, could end up adorning a future ballroom or high-end restaurant, or become a backdrop in a lobby, does not seem to discourage any of the bidders.

"When you do a historical building, those are things you respect," said Alan Casnoff, a founder of P&A Associates, which is teaming with the Peebles Corp. of New York to bring a Kimpton Hotel to the site. "It's not a question of whether you like it or don't like it. Rather, it's something passed from generation to generation."

Carl Dranoff, a longtime Center City developer with a competing bid, agreed. "The murals are wonderful," he said. "We're going to make those a showcase of the building."

Another time

When Family Court opened in 1941, newspapers heralded it as "A Palace of Justice" to replace makeshift and decrepit courtrooms for domestic relations and juvenile matters, scattered across the city. The building mirrors the Free Library next door, as well as the Hotel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

The Family Court building and the interior artwork were funded with New Deal dollars. Nine local artists created the murals, while the famed studio of Nicola D'Ascenzo created a stained-glass window.

It was the largest local investment in public art to grow out of the New Deal, Leech said.

From the start, the architecture and art were designed to send a message to all who entered the imposing courthouse - from craps-shooting delinquents to warring couples or destitute parents.

"It's trying to give a sense of dignity to the institution of courts," Leech said.

In advance of a sale of the building, a local restoration firm, Materials Conservation Co., has assessed the condition of the murals. Three need urgent attention because of flaking, but most are in good shape, requiring only surface cleaning.

Some images would be unfathomable - as well as unaffordable - today. 

By an elevator, the D'Ascenzo stained-glass panel, titled Justice Is Queen of Virtues, includes images of the Ten Commandments and references to the Book of Proverbs.

In the waiting room for Courtrooms A and B are 11 small murals by John Joseph Capolino, a former curator of the Woodmere Art Gallery in Chestnut Hill, who specialized in military portraits. They feature famous American men - only men - Thomas Alva Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain, and Daniel Boone.

Another waiting room has 11 small murals depicting domestic relations. In one, an angel is reaching out for the collar of a departing father. In another, an officer of the court is mediating between a drunkard husband and his family.

As D'Adamo showed visitors the courthouse art last week, a longtime employee, Judy Vincenty, paused to listen to a description of a mural showing a stark scene of a mother with a babe on her hip serving a meager meal to her family. It has the words: "Investigation and probation aid humanized justice."

"Is that what it says?" said Vincenty, a probation officer for 24 years. "I saw it every day, but I never paid that much attention to it."

Of the message in the mural, she added: "That's what I do."

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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com