The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for the ‘Philadelphia’ Category

The Real Row Houses of Philadelphia

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Photographer Ben Marcin’s “Last House Standing” is a collection of images of single-standing row homes on mostly deserted blocks in Philadelphia (and her cousins in misery, Camden and Baltimore). In a way, it’s a catalogue of neglect and abandonment; though it manages to portray its lonely subjects with dignity, it also plays into a popular mindset that associates small and detached housing with antiquity and blight.

Like Marcin, I’ve always been fascinated by row homes, whether ruinous or genteel (though unlike Marcin, my tool for documenting them has been a more modest point-n-shoot). Part of the fascination has to do with the architecture, but I’m sure part also comes from not having lived in these homes growing up, longing for a denser urban experience.

These are the real row homes of Philadelphia: North, South, West, Northeast, river wards, Center City — homes that defined a city, at the turn of the last century, unique among her east coast peers in offering immigrants and working classes the chance to own their own homes, from basement to roof, from front stoop to back porch.

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My only artistic purpose here, if one can call it that, is to revel in the beautiful, the healthy, the accidentally whimsical, the tragic, the hideous and the hanging-on among the city’s many blocks. The row house as a building concept may have fallen out of favor, and much of the housing stock has been lost through the years, but much of what’s still standing here is going to be around for a long time.

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Written by cwmote

April 30, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Giant steps for the John Coltrane House

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In some ways, John Coltrane’s house is like any other in Strawberry Mansion. The three-story, Dutch-gabled row home where he lived from 1952 to 1958 was seen as desirable by North Philadelphia’s ascendent black middle class, literally across the street from verdant Fairmount Park and tied in closely to the city’s burgeoning jazz scene.

After decades of decline, there are signs of renewed investment in Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood still beset by poverty and crime. Many classic houses are crumbling; vacant lots abound. Still, the former Coltrane residence at 1511 North 33rd Street, while vulnerable to the risks of age and abandonment, endures as a symbol of the city of Philadelphia’s rich music culture. The house—a National Historic Landmark—is the focus of preservation efforts to commemorate the jazz icon’s legacy and serve as an asset to the community.

The full story — recounting Coltrane’s spiritual awakening and examining the challenges posed by house museums — is now up at Hidden City and is also being published this week by All About Jazz. Exciting times ahead.

Don’t miss “The Changing Face of Preservation,” a special collaboration between Grid and Hidden City

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Homes in Overbrook Farms. Photo: Peter Woodall

Homes in Overbrook Farms. Photo: Peter Woodall

It’s not too late to grab a free copy of Grid magazine‘s March issue on historic preservation. This collaboration with Hidden City Daily takes a hard look at the challenges, and many benefits, of saving Philadelphia’s treasures. Adaptive reuse, DIY repair, and historic designation are all effective means of preservation practice — although not all are without their controversies, as the movement to create a historic district for the Overbrook Farms neighborhood shows. (Also up at Hidden City: my follow-up on how the Overbrook Farms nomination is threatening to derail the entire historic designation process.) Thanks to Grid‘s excellent reporting, it’s easy to see how preservation isn’t just about saving pretty buildings, but about building a sustainable city as well.

Have a look at the digital version of this issue here.

Written by cwmote

February 23, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Celebrate Honest Abe’s B-day with a free tour of the Union League

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Photo: RegBarc

Photo: RegBarc

One of Broad Street’s most recognizable bastions of gentlemanliness and old-fashioned elitism, the Union League of Philadelphia will open its doors to the public for a limited time on Saturday. The annual open house commemorates the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, to whose cause the founders pledged their loyalty in 1862 as the Civil War intensified. Visitors are entitled to free guided tours of the establishment, which includes the Second Empire house impressively designed (and fabulously quoined) by John Fraser, as well as the Horace Trumbauer addition fronting 15th Street (where you actually have to walk to get inside). While the Union League is open on a limited basis to non-members year-round, this is the one time that guests won’t feel out of place because of their affinity for Stoli in their martinis or their opposition to repealing the estate tax. Etiquette, you know.

Union League of Philadelphia, Broad and Sansom Streets (enter on 15th Street), free entry Saturday, February 9 from 11am to 2pm. No reservations required.

Written by cwmote

February 8, 2013 at 11:09 am

More Art Notes: Phila. Museum introducing Pay-what-you-wish Wednesday Nights with free movies, yoga

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A scene from Art After 5. Now try to visualize all these people on mats lost in meditation…

A propos of First Weekends and extra art hours comes this announcement from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After souring many of its patrons when it cut back its pay-what-you-like Sundays to just the first Sunday of the month, the Museum is introducing a new name-your-price admission feature for Wednesday nights during extended hours from 5:00 to 8:45pm. Beginning February 13, you’ll come across art talks, live music, free film screenings, and a casual atmosphere of culture and chance encounters that makes you recall how fun real dating was before OkCupid. Think of it as a less snazzy cousin to the hugely successful Art After 5 Fridays, only with patrons taking yoga classes(!) by the grand steps instead of sipping overpriced Steven Starr cocktails.

It’s hard to complain about more museum hours, and it looks like the events calendar will offer something for everyone. And seriously, lovelorn singles, some of the date scenarios practically write themselves: see if you can go wrong with a little Cezanne and a screening of Amélie on February 27.

Written by cwmote

February 4, 2013 at 8:32 pm

Art Notes: Dilworth Plaza rising, First Friday expanding

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Today is First Friday (already!), but here’s something new to try rolling off the tongue: First Weekend. Turns out that the Old City galleries have been such a success despite the economic downturn (cynical translation: are so desperate for sales precisely because of the economic downturn) that they will offer educational programs and restaurant partnerships for Sunday brunches along with their usual extended Friday night viewing hours. Will sidewalk artists expand their encampments accordingly? All legends start somewhere.

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rendering of Pulse (image: Knight Arts)

Speaking of encampments: you know how the City started wrecking the old Dilworth Plaza outside of City Hall as an excuse to evict the Occupiers? Here’s some evidence that it was more than just a really good excuse: structural steel improvements to the concourse connecting the Market-Frankford station to the plaza have been successfully completed. Next step, now that your commute will become a little less hellish: the plaza makeover will become visible at the surface level by the summertime. Part of the makeover will be visibly enhanced by the installation of Pulse, a sculpture by Janet Echelman, made possible by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. We’re not sure if the sculpture consists of the reflecting pool or the curvy flares that slice through it, but whatever it is, it looks cool — and Philadelphia’s homeless (and Occupiers…but I repeat myself…kidding!) will probably be deterred from camping out around it when the plaza reopens in 2014.

Otherwise, it’s one of those can’t-go-wrong weekends. Groundhog Day? Super Bowl party? Puppy Bowl party??? Get with it, man. Opportunity knocks.

Written by cwmote

February 1, 2013 at 1:36 pm

More infill coming to South Street, this time (we hope) minus the heated neighborhood drama

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With the recently publicized neighbor/developer feud escalating over the vacant lot at 1701 South Street — now visually enhanced by fresh graffiti at the site (above) — you’re likely to think one of two things: “Dear Lord, developers are trampling over residents and ruining their home values,” or “For Pete’s sake, at this rate South Street will never get filled in.” If it’s the latter that’s gnawing your brain, think positive about all the other projects that are slated to break ground. South Star Lofts, at the site of the former community garden on Broad Street, is expected to commence any week now, while 1612-16 South should get started in March, according to Ori Feibush of OCF Realty.

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Will 1701’s graffiti wall eventually match this?

And now yet another empty parcel is about to enter the fray. The owners of 1110-1112 South St., currently a gravel parking lot, will present their plans to the Zoning Board of Adjustment to build eight residential units on the site. Presumably, these will be condominiums that resemble the units on the north side of the block, only a fair bit taller — 41 feet, in fact. The site is currently zoned for first-floor commercial, but the zoning notice makes no mention of mixed residential/retail use. The notice also refers to a rear yard space, without addressing on-site parking.

We’re not sure how the neighbors behind the site have responded to the proposed height and density — hopefully, someone at Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition can fill us in. We’ll know for certain come Wednesday, February 20, when the ZBA hearing is set to be held.

Written by cwmote

January 31, 2013 at 10:10 pm