Hate the Middletown Monument? Artists, architects explain why there's no love

·6 min read

"I hate it," he said.

But, why?

"Well, it's just [expletive] stupid," he responded. "What is it even supposed to be?"

Bill Kindle is no art critic, no architect, nor historian. He sells cars on Business Route 1 and he hates the Middletown Monument.

Kindle can't quite explain his disdain for the four-story artifice at Oxford Valley Road and Lincoln Highway (also known as Business Route 1).

But he's not alone. In online reviews, users have described the Middletown Monument as "amazingly awful" and "one of the most ugliest things ever."

And recently announced plans for an $11 million overhaul of the intersections it stands over had many motorists hopeful the road upgrades may lead to the monuments demise. Not so fast, PennDOT said. The "M" isn't going anywhere.

We asked artists and architects to help us understand why we just have no love for the structure.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, though popular works of architect and art have common features, they say.

Art and architecture can raise a question and/or start a conversation. It can make a statement and reflect the values of a community. Large installations can envelop us and transport us into new experiences.

Or ... art and architecture can do none of that, said Pierre Trombert, a French architect, designer, and instructor at the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia.

"This has no resonance, and so it has to be big and loud because it doesn't have any meaning," said Trombert, of the monument. "It's not sensitive to its environment ― like a big foot coming down on you."

Middletown Monument is 'actually kind of obnoxious'

Jamie Newbon agreed. She has an unobstructed view of the Middletown Monument from the front window of her SalonCentric beauty supply store.

"I guess you could say that it's art," said Newbon. "It is more than just an M and a T, and it changes colors at night time.

"I just try not to look at it," Newbon continued. "It's the kind of thing you expect to see when you're driving into Atlantic City."

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A monument can send a message about the style of the community, said Sarah Beethman, liberal arts chair at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts who specializes in monuments.

“It looks like something that should be outside a shopping center,” said Beetham. “But I’m sure the community sees itself as something more than a shopping center.”

Delaney Cook grew up in Middletown and was unaware that any one called it the Middletown Monument. "We're a small town," she said. "So I don't know why we would even have or even need a monument."

"I guess it's nothing special," Cook said, looking on the structure. "It's actually kind of obnoxious."

Alison Ruggiero works at the Cigar Cigars tobacco shop on Lincoln Highway and wishes the Middletown Monument was torn down. "It's bright and it's a distraction. It is definitely not a monument," she said.

While it was called a monument in its marketing, and folks can debate if its worthy of the title, no one can argue that it is advertising, and was billed as such from it inception.

When approved for construction, Catalyst Outdoor Advertising promised Middletown space on its electronic billboards to promote township events, parks and recreational programs and congratulate sports teams. They also were clear that the structure would flash advertisements on its large panels at the busy intersection.

It's not the only billboard of its type in Bucks County, either. In Quakertown, a compass-shaped structure sits at the busy intersection of Routes 313 and 309. In Hilltown, a tall rectangular object with rainbow-colored lights greets drivers as they head north on the 309 bypass.

Constructed in 2018, the Middletown Monument doubles as an electronic billboard at the corner Lincoln Highway and Oxford Valley Road.
Constructed in 2018, the Middletown Monument doubles as an electronic billboard at the corner Lincoln Highway and Oxford Valley Road.

Jennie Shanker, who has served as an exhibition consultant for Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, worked on North Philadelphia mural arts projects, and was a founding member of Philadelphia’s Vox Populi Gallery, poses a good question.

"What is this [Middletown] monument celebrating?" she asked. "Monuments should give us something. With the advertisements, I feel this monument is trying to take something from us. It's taking our money."

Celebrating community elsewhere in Bucks County with art

Other recent public art projects might better reflect the local community.

"Bristol Borough, Settled by the World's People" was painted in 2020 and draws on images of Ellis Island immigrants who would eventually make a home in Bristol.

The mural by Artist Jean-Marc Dubus is visible on Old Route 13 as you head north toward Mill Street.

The monument was approved by a Middletown board members who no longer serve on the township's board of supervisors. On Sept. 7, this news organization reached out to five current members of the board.

None of the current board members responded to requests for comment on the Middletown Monument.

Painted in 2020, "Greetings from Yardley" is designed to look like a postcard. You'll find the mural at 15 South Main Street. Nancy Rokos. Bucks County Courier Times.
Painted in 2020, "Greetings from Yardley" is designed to look like a postcard. You'll find the mural at 15 South Main Street. Nancy Rokos. Bucks County Courier Times.

A "Greetings From Yardley" mural was also finished in 2020 and designed to look like a postcard. Inside each letter in the postcard, artist Toni Napoli has placed smaller scenes from around town. Inside the letters "R" and "D," for example, you'll find a smaller painting of the Old Library at Lake Afton.

The Yardley mural is accessible from Main Street and many people take selfies, using the large postcard-inspired image as a backdrop.

By contrast, the Middletown Monument is largely unapproachable at a busy intersection on the Route 1 corridor. No sidewalks were constructed at the corner of Business Route 1 and Oxford Valley Road.

Few people attempt to cross the six-lane intersection. Landscaped bushes also make it impossible to stand next to or under the structure and there is no place to sit.

PennDOT will improve the intersection in the coming years, but the plan keeps the Middletown M intact as state engineers have proposed widening both North Oxford Valley Road and Business Route 1. The intersection could also get new sidewalks, concrete islands, and ADA compliant curbs. Officials have yet to announce the timeline for construction.

Does the Middletown Monument make for a dangerous intersection?

While selling cars at the P.J. McCafferty dealership on Business Route 1, Kindle said he witnesses a lot of accidents. Kindle suspects people are distracted by the monument and its many billboard advertisements while navigating the busy intersection.

At the request of this news organization, PennDOT pulled five years of crash records for the intersection. Every year, about six crashes are reported at Business Route 1 and Oxford Valley Road. That number did not increase after construction of the Middletown Monument in 2018. Only four crashes occurred in 2021.

The intersection averages around 32,000 cars and trucks per day, according to PennDOT. By comparison, some 82,000 drivers pass daily on sections of U.S. Route 1 in the township, according to PennDOT estimates.

Middletown Police Chief Joe Bartorilla said he's received no complaints about Middletown Monument causing accidents. "Our overall crashes decreased quite a bit in 2020, and also in 2021, Bartorilla said. "This was likely due to decreased traffic volume due to COVID."

This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Middletown Monument is here to stay. Why is it so hated?