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The Chinese Cultural and Community Center’s iconic panels are back and made to last

Artist David Guinn recreated the colorful panels

This week’s re-installment of the iconic painted panels onto the facade of the Chinese Cultural & Community Center in Chinatown was the culmination of the historic building’s months-long restoration. And next week, on November 9, a judge will decide whether it was all enough to put the once grand-turned-graffiti-laden structure back on the market.

The restoration of what was once a shining welcome center in the heart of Chinatown has been ongoing since May 2016, when Joe Palmer of Scioli Turco became the state court-appointed conservator of the property. He was handed the keys and task to restore a dilapidated building completely stripped of its interiors.

Palmer knew that the restoration of the 16 panels was a crucial part of the building’s restoration. So he took what was left of the panels down from the building and carted them over to the studio of local artist David Guinn, whose many murals adorn numerous walls throughout Philly.

Guinn met up with Curbed Philly at the Chinese Community & Cultural Center on 125 N. 10th Street recently to talk about the restoration process and how it was unlike any other project he’s done.

How Guinn became involved with the restoration project:

Joe and I had met a few years ago because he lives across the street from a mural that I had painted [at 9th and Bainbridge]. There was this big conversation about, "Should we try to save this mural?" or "Should this house this built?"

He called in June and said, "I have this project for you." I grew up in Philadelphia and had always seen and known about this building. I came out here to look at the panels and they were all screwed up and graffitied over. I said, "I think I can do this," but I wasn’t really sure.

How he attempted to recreate the panels:

It’s an interesting process of trying to figure out what was on the panels, because some of them were almost beyond recognition.

There’s an archeological aspect to that: Looking underneath the graffiti and getting a sense from parts of panels that hadn’t been heavily damaged. I was able to infer the colors and patterns that way.

On recreating panels that will endure:

To me, there wasn’t any way to restore the original panels. So we went with the idea to recreate them in the best spirit of the originals. The approach I took is, "What’s going to last the longest?"

So the panels that I used were marine plywood, which is a type of wood designed to be in water. And then we coated them with oil first to make them even more resistant to water, and then added a special primer. So there are all these things to ensure that the panels would be as long lasting as possible.

On installing the new panels back onto the front facade:

The installation was fun. We laid all the panels out in the order that they were going to go up. But because these balconies are really decorative, everyone had to be harnessed in and roped to walls inside the building. Once you’re up there, you realize that the balconies wouldn’t keep them from falling.

It’s a precision thing, so we had to get them to fit exactly right. We had to remove a little bit of molding to slip a panel behind the molding and them put the molding back.

What happened to the original panels?

They’re up in my studio. They’re real relics—I’m not really sure what to do with them!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.