What to Know
- Over 30 years ago, Burlington Center Mall offered bustling community and a bright future for a local sculptor's life-size elephant fountain.
- But as the now-closed shopping center faces demolition, so does Petal the elephant — unless she can manage to find a new home.
- Mall owners Steven and Natalie Maksin have offered to donate the elephant, free of charge, to anyone willing to adopt her.
Inside the leaky, desolate confines of the building recently named New Jersey's saddest mall, only one tenant remains.
And not just any tenant. Petal, a life-size elephant made completely out of fiberglass, served as a memorable fixture of the Burlington Center Mall for the past 30 years.
Now, she’s facing eviction from the only place she has called home.
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The local sculptor who designed and created the fountain elephant decades ago, Zenos Frudakis, says he’s gone on to complete more than 100 large pieces around the world. (Close to home, and perhaps most controversially notable, he also designed the Frank Rizzo statue. "I didn't vote for him," Frudakis said.)
But it’s clear that Petal holds a special place in his heart.
"The elephant was my first big piece,” he said. "I did it when I was still a student. ... It’s like my firstborn."
The elephant fountain was originally commissioned by Stockton Strawbridge, the scion of the Strawbridge and Clothier retail empire. Strawbridge had just returned from Africa and wanted children to be as thrilled by the elephants as he was.
Petal measures 11 feet high and 8 feet wide, 12 feet from front to back, and carries a full-size child on her back. Her informal name, Petal, comes from her real-life model at the Philadelphia Zoo.
Petal made her debut at the Burlington Center Mall in the summer of 1982. When the mall opened, it was anchored by Sears, Strawbridge’s (now Macy’s), and JCPenney’s among its 100 stores and restaurants. But 30 years later, it began to struggle.
In 2007, an incident of gang violence leading to temporary mall closures left some residents uncertain about its safety, NJ.com reported. In 2017, an Advance Media ranking of New Jersey’s malls called Burlington Center "rundown and deserted", placing it dead last. And finally, in January 2018, frozen pipes burst, damaging the fire alarm system and leading to officials’ decision to close the mall earlier than its previously scheduled shutdown in March, the South Jersey Courier Post reported.
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Google reviewers call Burlington Mall a “ghost town” and an “asphalt wasteland,” although it isn’t the only one struggling to compete with the convenience of online shopping and the lure of to-door delivery. The American mall itself is dying; according to a 2017 report published in Fortune, 1 out of every 4 malls is projected to close by 2022.
The plan is to demolish the shopping center. But even though the mall can’t be saved, Frudakis insists the elephant can be.
“A public work of art like Petal should find a home where it can be enjoyed,” Frudakis Studio spokesman John Xuereb said. “A public work that brought so much joy to so many people deserves to have another life.”
The mall's owners, Moonbeam Capital Investments, are willing to donate the sculpture to any organization for free, providing that they're willing to move it, according to the studio.
The artist hopes somewhere like a non-profit organization, a zoo or a hospital can continue to enjoy Petal. But while several parties have expressed interest in adopting the parentless pachyderm, none have committed to take her.
That might be because of the cost of the fountain’s removal and installation, which Frudakis hopes to cover with a GoFundMe page. Petal has multiple fans, the studio said, who call her every week hoping to hear about the fate of their friend.
“Some of them came as children to see the sculpture, and have children of their own now,” Frudakis added.
For now, Petal’s still waiting in the now-defunct Burlington Center Mall. She’ll be there, Xuereb says, until she can be moved, either to a temporary or a permanent new home.