EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — When the human love for art is in conflict with the human need for food, something good is going to lose.
The Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch says it needs more space for its mission — which involves feeding people who can’t afford to feed themselves. So the organization plans to build a new warehouse on the site of its old one, because the current building is too small and it can’t be expanded or even repaired economically, says Margie Barham, the executive director.
But that sad conflict arises because that old warehouse is art: Its exterior walls are covered in a swirling “mosaic of tile, glass, mirrors and found objects,” in the technical description of one of the two artists who spent 12 years turning the food bank headquarters — on the Black Horse Pike, just east of the Shore Mall in Egg Harbor Township — into a local landmark, one of the most eye-catching buildings around.
Bobbi Heisman, 68, was one of those artists — and now she’s a neighbor of the building. In 2001, she moved from a house in Longport to a mobile home within sight of the food bank. She first heard talk around her neighborhood that the building was coming down, and the food bank management confirms those plans.
That’s obviously a huge disappointment to her, because of all the time she put into the project with her old friend, Bootsie Weiss, who died in 2009. The two first met 50 years ago, as students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. They fell out of touch for a while but got back together in the 1980s, then spent countless hours from 1995 to 2007 working on the food bank together.
“This was made to last forever,” Heisman said, standing outside the building one day last week and showing off some of the highlights of the work, including gingerbread men made out of tile, large hearts, and a few words that include “Community,” “Food Bank” — and, in tiny tiles, the two artists’ given and married names.
“Bootsie was the last to continue it. She even worked on it through her chemotherapy,” Heisman adds.
So no matter how sympathetic she is to the food bank’s mission — and she didn’t spend 12 years volunteering there because she hates the organization or its goals — she still believes someone should look out for the side of art. So she says she and Weiss’ widower are looking into laws that could protect the mosaic as a work of art.
Barham says people at the food bank also hate to give up the art that covers their home, but the building just can’t accomodate its owners anymore. So over the first few weeks of this month, the food bank moved out of its warehouse to a temporary home in the old Value City department store’s space in the Shore Mall.
“It’s got this beautiful facade, and we love it too,” she says. “It is a landmark, but the need has risen so dramatically that we have to stick with our mission of providing food for those in need. And the building isn’t allowing us to do that.”
She says the nonprofit organization has “doubled our distribution in the last two years,” and handled 7.1 million pounds of food in 2010. “The need is going through the roof — we’re seeing unprecedented need in this area” in the weak national and local economy.
The current building — a lumberyard headquarters before the food bank took over in 1994 — doesn’t have enough storage or refrigerator space, and the space it does have is too “chopped up, a lot of it is not functional, you can’t get a forklift in it,” Barham explains. Plus the roof is too low for a modern food warehouse, she adds.
“We don’t have the vertical space, we can only go up so high,” she says. “But there are more issues than just the space. ... It has cracks in the walls, leaks in the roof, termites, you name it.”
The management did investigate expanding and repairing the existing building, she says.
“But it’s not practical — it would cost us more, and we still wouldn’t have what we needed,” she says. “When you’re doing twice as much as you’ve ever done, you need to find the space for that. ... We’re obligated morally and ethically to choose the most economically sound option as we move forward. ”
The food bank still needs approval from Egg Harbor Township’s Planning Board before it can do anything to start the 29,160-square-foot “Butler building” — a prefabricated metal structure — it hopes to replace the current building with. As of Friday, the application was scheduled to be heard at the board’s Feb. 22 meeting.
If the food bank gets that OK, the first step will be to demolish the existing building. Barham promises that when the time comes, the organization will ask contractors to try to salvage any sections of the mosaic they can get off intact.
“We will do whatever we can to save whatever we can, and then use it in some way,” she says. “Because we do love it too. It is recognized as the food bank, and we totally regret this. But we tried to work (preserving) it every way we can, and we just couldn’t do it.”
After her years in this labor of love with her friend, Heisman can’t find much solace — or hope — in talk of rescuing parts of her project. She knows, as food-bank people do, that the art was built right into the walls, not mounted onto portable sections with an eye toward removing it a piece at a time.
“But it’s a shame for the public too that it’s going to be gone,” Heisman says. “Because it was an uplifting thing — so many people told me how when they went by, it lifted their spirits. ... I don’t think they’ll be able to save it. I’m not very hopeful about that.”
Contact Martin DeAngelis: