For decades, South Street has been a prime destination for Philadelphians, from its quirky novelty stores to its excellent restaurants. Whether you’re looking for vintage finds, sex toys, or a bite to eat, chances are South Street has what you want. With the variety of unique shops and the artistic sensibilities that seem to permeate throughout, the area has become one of the city’s go–to shopping destinations, perfect for weekend adventures and pleasant detours.
A few stores in particular are bound to become favorites, and Eyes Gallery is right up there. However, a two–alarm fire that started next door devastated the gallery, shuttering it for months. Today, this South Street mainstay is rebuilding and continuing its history of bringing Latin American art to Philadelphia.
Founded in 1968 by Julia Zagar and her muralist husband Isaiah Zagar, Eyes Gallery is a remarkable destination for art lovers. It showcases Latin American jewelry, textiles, and more. Its exterior, covered in one of Isaiah Zagar's dreamy ceramic and glass murals, invites passersby inside to experience a taste of Latin American folk art.
Eyes Gallery has flourished through South Street's various iterations. Once a shopping district for Southern and Eastern European immigrants in the early 1900s, South Street's businesses closed in the 1950s when the city planned to build an eight–lane expressway connecting I–95 and I–76 through the neighborhood. The plan never came to fruition, but low rents allowed artists to move into the area. Eyes Gallery was part of this movement, alongside other revolutionary businesses, like Giovanni's Room, an LGBTQ and feminist bookstore, and Essene Market, a natural foods store.
While some artistic spaces have been replaced by sneaker stores and smoke shops, Eyes Gallery has remained. For 54 years, it has been a staple in South Street, fostering an environment of joy and creativity. But how has the gallery continuously managed to captivate store goers for so long? According to Julia Zagar, there are a couple reasons why.
“One of the things is color,” says Zagar. She was born and raised in the hustle and bustle of New York City, where she quickly found herself enamored with the colors and designs found in the city’s shop windows. Taking a particular notice of Peruvian and Colombian weavings she found displayed in golden frames, it was this time in her youth which informed her curiosity towards Latin American art. Julia Zagar would eventually study art at The Cooper Union, where she was further exposed to art around the world.
But it was ultimately a trip to Mexico that inspired the colors of Eyes Gallery as we know it today. “I was used to a very gray city atmosphere, and the first time I saw the bougainvillea dripping and spreading all over the housetops in the bright colors of pink and purple and orange, I knew I wanted to bring that back to Philadelphia,” Zagar says. Color flows from every inch of Eyes Gallery, from the bright folk art sold inside to the interior walls covered in her husband's mosaics.
Zagar says that another reason why Eyes Gallery is still so appealing is that commitment to Latin American culture. While in Peru serving in the Peace Corps, she fell in love with local wood carvings, weavings, and crafts. “I found that, all through Latin America, there were wonderful handmade objects that we in the United States no longer had contact with, and I wanted to bring that into the Philadelphia region. And I did,” Zagar says. This sense of authentic admiration oozes from every corner of the gallery, adding to what she described as “a place not to buy, but to feel."
Unfortunately, on July 29, 2022, this beloved landmark was forced to close its doors. A raging fire due to electrical wiring issues next door at Jim’s Steaks left the two businesses crippled. Jim's Steaks itself received massive structural damages, with a good portion of the cheesesteak shop burning down in the process. Eyes Gallery, on the other hand, was less damaged, but still dramatically impacted. A majority of the building, its artwork and mosaics were still intact, but the water and smoke damage were substantial, and most of the gallery’s inventory was affected.
Zagar was incredibly devastated by the losses, but quickly got to work on plans to reopen as soon as possible. “It’s a real shock, everything that you work with has suddenly disappeared. We had insurance, but the entire process of going into a building with a smell of mold was very very hard. So the thought of renovation at my age was too much, I couldn’t do [a complete renovation]. Ken Silver [the owner of Jim's Steaks] was already doing exactly that over at Jim’s, and I figured, if he’s doing that, he can do this too,” she adds with a cheeky laugh. “I sold the building to him, and moved across the street.” The new Eyes Gallery is set to reopen at 327 South St. on April 15, with Jim’s Steaks soon to follow on Labor Day Weekend.
While both Eyes Gallery and Jim’s are not gone, Zagar is set to end her 54–year run with the beloved gallery. “Part of me loves folk art and Latin America, but the other part of me loves the platform of interacting with people, talking to them and teaching them … and that’s what I felt I was going to miss the most.”
While having to step away from a business so near and dear to her heart is obviously difficult, she remains optimistic about the institution’s future. According to Zagar, Eyes Gallery is looking forward to a potential reopening sometime in mid–late April, while Jim’s Steaks will take longer to reopen. In regards to the gallery's future, Zagar hopes not only that both the former sense of community and artistic integrity will be maintained, but also that it gains a second life. “It’s not the same as it was at [the old location], it’s going to be very different. But it also is going to be the same. It’s like a new recipe, but it’s good food.”
So while we wait for that recipe to finish cooking, The Magic Gardens, another artistic installation in South Street created by Isaiah Zagar, will put out a book in remembrance of the old Eyes Gallery, and the gallery puts out information regularly on its Instagram and website about the new location.