The Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company headquarters was designed by and constructed for people with big ambitions. They saw corporate entities as titans, and set a stage for their industry in deified terms. Architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie translated their material prowess into Olympian feats. The Fidelity Mutual building (now known as the Perelman Building) looks like a fortress temple, which Lawrie populated with avatars of virtue both large and small.
The building was finished in 1928, and is considered one of the greats of American Art Deco architecture.
The entrance facade evokes both the Ishtar Gate and a Roman triumphal arch. The choice of location also suggests the tone Fidelity Mutual Life wanted to set with this building: it's across from the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was completed the same year. The museum is built to resemble a Greek Temple on an acropolis--lofty company. But, where the museum is a temple to Art (with a Capital A), the Fidelity building is a temple to Capitalism, enshrining business partnerships, the harnessing of labor, the protection of one's assets.
The Virtues of Friendship and Prudence
The overarching program of the decoration of the building is to present the pinnacle of human achievement as only possible through business deals. Curiously, the facade relies on a populist form, Art Deco to make its case for the ruling class.
This bas-relief sculpture, structured something like an engaged column, depicts a vaguely Egyptian-looking man and boy, facing a companion sculpture of a vaguely Ancient-Greek-looking woman on the other side of the arch. This side of the arch bears the legend "Amicitia"--"friendship," and I suppose the argument being made here is that Progress requires trust and enduring relationship.
The boy holds his father's (?) hand, and presents a miniature of what looks to me like an ark---a house on a boat. I am mystified, and that feeling will persist as we look at other parts of the building. My best guess is that *the* ark (as in Noah's) is a symbol of planning ahead and assuring protection against catastrophes. Sure, this is as apt a metaphor for insurance as many, but I'm not sure why pharaonic head-cloth or wig goes with the ark.
But below the pair is an even stranger choice to accompany "Amicitia." A frieze in a slightly different deco style shows a colonial settler extending--I'm not sure what--tobacco? wampum beads? leather?--to an Indian Chief, who holds out a peace pipe. A leafless tree divides them, and it seems as though in the making of the panel that the tree itself is split in two, and is asymmetrical. Even in the 1920s, employing this metaphor for friendship and mutual trust would be a stretch, but I think that this building uses metaphors which frame white settlers and businessmen as beneficent, bestowing their gifts on more primitive people, including working-class whites and women, in such a way that protects and nurtures them.
Perhaps colonial trading with natives wasn't the best analogy for trusting friendship...
Prudentia carries an hour-glass and keys
When you travel over the arch to the other side, you find a female figure, garbed like some sort of priestess, as an embodiment of Prudence--sound, conservative judgment. She holds an hour-glass and keys. The glass suggests that one must wait to receive benefits, and the keys imply protecting or withholding treasures to preserve them until they are needed. What are insurance policies, if not agreements by people with resources not to use them for a period time (or, more properly, let the company use them), with the promise that waiting will yield even greater riches?
Prudentia stands on a wise, old owl, and below her is a panel even more confounding to me than the choice of the settler and chief on the opposite side. It's another colonial myth, this one of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm. Hardly the first example of prudence to come to mind. I'm not sure what the bystander in the tricorn hat is doing on the left, but perhaps Franklin's prudence lies in holding a giant key, presumably as a ground to protect agains the lightning. I guess that is a good idea, but I don't think it sets much of a bar for prudence. Nonetheless, I admire the composition. The Art Deco jagged lightning, striking at Franklin's feet is lovely, and the two figures hold the kite in the manner of heraldry--holding up a coat of arms or shield. Their flat bodies in profile are reminiscent of Egyptian art, and the regular depressions in the background are suggestive of rain.
Franklin Experimenting with Lightning is an odd choice for Prudence...
The Cornice of Symbolic Animals
My favorite feature of the building is its cornice, which is a wonder of playfulness and bizarre associations. The roof is capped with golden floral scrollwork, populated by symbolic animals. The gold and blue reinforce the them of the building as a Mesopotamian gatehouse, with the plants looking like a cross between a cactus and a tower or lighthouse. These figures perch on the edge of the roof in the same way that antefixes were used on Etruscan temples. In the temples, these figures were caps on roof-beams (for protection from rain), and apotropaic guardians (for protection from evil spirits).
The carved animals embody the reasons why one should buy insurance: to save money, to exercise paternal wisdom, to sacrifice for the future benefit and protection of one's children. Each animal is very cleverly sculpted. To fully appreciate them, though, you'll need binoculars or a zoom lens. I've given you close-ups here. They really merit the focus.
The inscription guides the narrative here for the audience: you are a noble man if you take out insurance (to open the doors of opportunity for your loved ones). The point of your labor is to invest in the future of those you love, which engenders civilization itself.
The Squirrel of Frugality
The designer kept the squirrels as finishing pieces on the ends of the facade. It's hard to see the coiled tail in the back, but the neck sports a curling ruff of fur. The pot-belly suggests that the squirrel is ready for a long winter, and it has a last large nut, which it clutches tightly in its paws.
The Owl of Wisdom
The owl is not a surprising choice here, but the execution is really quite genius in its abstraction--much less realistic than the squirrel. Look at the concave swirls which compose the eyes, and the blocky, columnar wings. The cross-hatches in the chest and legs make the figure seem like a fortress unto itself. I love the flat, wide-spaced talons--they're the closest thing to realism there, but overall the owl is a wonder of geometry.
The Pelican of Self-Sacrifice
I was surprised to see the pelican, but it makes sense when you understand that Philadelphia had a very large European-Catholic population, with monumental churches just down the street from this building. In Catholic legend, the pelican is a symbol of Jesus, because it was believed the bird would rip out its breast with its beak to feed its children. This representation is quite clever, in that it carves the beak directly into the chest, and points it down to two fledglings, which take over the place where the bird's legs would be. The heads of the chicks are delightfully simple, all eyes and mouths; scissor-like open beaks, pointing straight up to the parent's bill. The single band of vine, like a laurel, encircling the chicks is elegant. I particularly like how the pelican is built something like a fortress around the chicks--the wings just forward to form side-barriers from the wind, and they continue all the way down to the base of the cornice, giving the whole sculpture significant visual weight and solidity.
The Opossum of Protection
The best in show is this opossum mother with her babies. It's closer to Art Nouveau in style than Deco, and is more complicated than the other animal sculptures. Using curves to suggest musculature, and posing the figure to bend back on itself, the sculpture is dynamic. The tail curls like a snake, and the babies' tiny tails holding onto the mother's are not only graceful, but adorable. Three babies are graduated in scale, so that they nestle perfectly into the arch of the tail. I love the attention to the tiny ears, making them three-dimensional and realistic. This piece was made with love. It makes its point, but I have to say that until I started researching this building I'd never heard of possums as symbols of protection, even though there have been lots of cartoon representations of mama and babies. This building takes a pop-culture image and elevates it. Where the other animals are represented as pairs (one on each side), the possum of protection is the centerpiece. It's positioned as the crowning figure.
The Dog of Fidelity
The last symbolic animal used on the building is at the base. There are two images of dogs--they look like guardian mastiffs. They are positioned as protective creatures at the entry of the building--but are obscured from public view by a tree on one side, and the shade of the building on the other. Both are very large in scale, as if to convey a credible threat; a very compelling representation of insurance as protection, and loyalty to those protected.
The Progressive Frieze of Labor and Management
The two facades of the building sport a frieze of golden figures on a cobalt blue background. They are early representations which became quite common on American government buildings in the 1930s. The silent film Metropolis (1927) embodies the same ideas here in its plot and mise-en-scene--the narrative that workers are noble, but they really need management to organize and protect them. The frieze starts with those who work in nature, and then progresses through types of technology, culminating in the intellectual classes who govern morality and truth. They are alike in scale and beauty of image (each figure is simultaneously generic and ideal), but the implication in the left-to-right placement is that one is more primitive, and the last most advanced. I present them here in order of appearance.
The Farmer, the Woodsman
The Mason, The Carpenter, The Smith, The Weaver
The Judge, The Scientist, The Pope
The Bas Reliefs of Old Tell Us of Progress and Conquest.
The ground-floor windows have a set of repeating bas-reliefs which seem to be making claims that empire-building and exertion of social control are eternal truths, visible throughout time and continents.
The Knight charges the Castle
The Chinese Lion and the Hittite Lamassu post laws
The African Warrior and the Lion-headed Goddesses are waiting to be colonized.
The armored European, taken with the naked African and Indian, reveal the conflictedness of the messaging here. On the one hand, the entire program is asserting cultural superiority of the building's owners and clients, with the narrative of Manifest (European) Destiny tied to race and wealth accumulation. On the other, there's a strong desire to place themselves alongside the powerful civilizations and romantic images of manly strength that don't come from Europe. I don't think this building's ornament is expecting spectators to see the images here as coherent, but rather the program is trying to evoke the fantasy and the drives of viewers to (literally) sell insurance as the path to being a part of progress and paternal protectionism. The building is a dream, with all the usual inconsistencies and cloaked interests one's dreams have. It's a static form of popular movies of its day--most particularly,Intolerance, where a case of an eternal, repeating story is used to make the viewer feel both central to and the end-product of a struggle for "civilization."
The Native American Confronts the Iron Horse...and the Telegraph
The Fates Know You Need Life Insurance
The underside and side-walls of the entry-arch have a varied assortment of allusions to Greek myth which promote the idea that civilization is founded on rules and insurance.
Goddesses of Justice, Peace, and Good Laws
Figures of Study, Caretaking, and Guidance
Mosaic of Threats and Things to Protect
Entry Door Grate, with Symbols of Protection and Virtues
The Fidelity building is a masterpiece of syncretism, orientalism, symbolic appropriation, dreamscape,...and great artistic skill. I admire the beauty of the design, which is Lawrie's work, immensely, even though it may be something of an impoverished vision to use this program to suggest that the great March of Civilization owes everything to insurance brokering. Post World War I, the monied class was enshrining President Coolidge's assertion that "...[T]he chief business of the American people is business." (1925) Their business, while able to purchase glamorous objects and experiences, was mostly unglamorous paperwork, managing a working-class who were shouting for their rights. Fidelity's building was for selling not just insurance, but also the idea that the business man is King Solomon or that George Babbitt was a kind of Pharaoh. I'm not sure that anyone outside the corner-office suite bought the characterization, but Fidelity occupied their temple to the Gods of Industry (themselves) for near 50 years (until 1972). By the end of the Millennium, however, the building was bought by the Philadelphia Art Museum, and made into a museum in its own right. Since the pandemic began, its doors have been closed.