Baird Mansion Atrium
Part 1 of a 2 part series
By Abby King
House venues come and go. Their short and fluid lifespan is an expected reality of running an illegal space in predominantly residential areas. While combing through Facebook events in the last few years I’ve noticed rapid turnover in Philadelphia spaces. Friends have commented these closures have picked up pace. With obvious factors like the infamous Ghost Ship Fire in Oakland, crack-downs are definitely at play. Rather than looking at the short tenure of a DIY space, it’s worth focusing on what happens during these brief existences.
One of my favorite spaces I’ve had the fortune to frequent and the disappointment to watch close was Baird Mansion Atrium (BMA). I found the venue on the now defunct Website DIYPHL. A site that served as a beacon for anyone searching for secret shows and cheap music. They are sorely missed.
The first group show I saw at BMA had a Philly favorite, Laser Background, on the lineup. Their lead singer performed their new album solo, all while seated on the floor. We all crossed our legs, leaned against the curved walls, and joined the singer in repose. Other sets had a different tone. The Boston band, Pucker Up’s drummer didn’t want to sit at all. He loomed above his kit, standing on his stool while the lead singer screamed. The night smelled like sweat and raging men.
Besides great acts BMA was host to even better mosh pits. During a set a male singer pointed out to the crowd there were no women slamming. This reminded me of Marissa Paternoster, the lead singer of Screaming Females. When I saw her at First Unitarian she yelled the same sentiment. Though she did so as a woman telling the audience she didn’t see her gender represented in the pit. She pointed out this was an obvious indicator the mosh pit wasn’t a safe space. It was supposed to be a gentle reminder to dudes in the audience to behave. She later spit on those who didn’t heed her warning. But at BMA, the male musician pointing out the lack of females was a challenge. A group of us ran forward taking his bait, thrashing around. Some ultimately landing in the drum kit. It was a good time.
I was again reminded of the scores of badass female Philly musicians at the previously mentioned Pucker Up gig because some of them were at the goddamn show! It was a cold night where everyone was dressed incognito, adorned in matching Carhartt jackets and muted colored beanies. Hidden amongst the winter wear were members of two of the best female fronted acts, Palm and Mothers. I did not hide my fan-girling I’m afraid.
BMA was a model for a great DIY space not just because of good bands, beers, and mosh pits, but because of who attended their shows. The venue drew crowds across ages, ethnicities, and identities and was a safe space for all who attended. At many other spaces I’m often another white face in a sea of sameness. Attending BMA, I watched shows with POC, nodded my head with impossibly tall black dudes and women of all sizes. Differences were not just expressed in musical stylings but in those actively taking part in an underground scene.
I wanted to find out what went on behind the scenes in the house and how they cultivated an inclusive audience. Unfortunately, Baird Mansion Atrium ceased hosting shows this past June. Upon hearing this I reached out to one of the folks behind the space, Richard Smith, to find out what happened and more importantly, how they did what they did in the first place. Here is our conversation.
Abby: What motivated you to open a DIY venue in the first place?
Rich: I lived in a space called Goldilocks Gallery that did a lot of shows, but I saw a lot wrong with how it was managed and didn’t have the power to change it which was frustrating.
I guess felt like a lot of DIY spaces were doing it wrong or sloppy and neglecting certain details (I.E. cleanliness, programming, lighting, etc.) I wanted it to be more of a considered experience than your average house venue.
A: How did BMA come to be? How did you find such an incredible house for shows?
R: BMA is the ballroom space in what was once the Matthew Baird Mansion built in the 1860s.
My friends lived in the space for two years before me and as soon as they told me they weren’t re-signing the lease I jumped on it. They did a show and a few parties but nothing serious. I had the intention of doing shows but I don’t think I anticipated having them so frequently.
A: In my experiences at BMA you drew such a diverse crowd. Your audience represented gender, queer, and people of color, unlike some other venues I'm familiar with. What brought this audience and how did you foster it?
R: I want to first thank Jazz and Nicki of All Mutable among others for introducing me to a lot of great artists from different backgrounds. I think the shows they booked here helped foster a comfortable and inclusive space.
R: I have heard people say that they feel safer at BMA than any other venue in Philly, and that brings up an interesting point because I never made that a conscious priority. I think it develops naturally as a result of the presentation of the space and the kinds of artists featured. Mostly I think I am just lucky to know a lot of great people and artists, but in general I think that if you hold your friends and art to a higher standard, people with ulterior motives or whatever won’t feel comfortable or be interested in coming to your shows. If your house is full of trash with no toilet paper and you are in your room getting drunk and high during the show you are fostering an unsafe environment.
R: It seems like there is a lot of backwards logic when it comes to creating inclusive spaces. I see people that lay it out as their number one priority without really reflecting on why it is poses difficulty in the first place. There is a lot of unlearning and undoing that has to take place in the white masculine structure that is the “DIY punk scene”.
A: What are some of your favorite shows or moments at the space?
R: There were so many fantastic shows but the few that stick out to me right away are:
The first show with Palm and Sitcom. We sold loosies from the freezer. It was a weird lineup and I think it did a lot for the space as far as establishing an aesthetic.
Probably the most exciting show we had was with Moor Mother, NAH, Soul Glo, and Blunt Fang. It was packed out and the crowd was super energetic.
A funny one was MATT OX’s first ever show in April. He went viral after that and played with Chief Keef in LA like a month later.
We were open for one year and had exactly 32 shows.
A: What led to the closure of BMA? How have these factors impacted the Philly DIY scene at large?
R: My landlord was kind of closing in on me for a while. He had cameras on the outside of the building and would send me emails saying vague things like “The volume of people entering and exiting the building is disturbing others.” He somehow found out about a show and told me that he would call the cops every 10 minutes if I went through with it so I decided to cease operations then. I never had an issue with the cops or with any of my neighbors.
I think that it is the nature of DIY to be constantly on the run and searching for new corners to inhabit. Right now there are no spaces I am enthusiastic about booking and I think others feel the same way. We have our eyes out for something.
While Rich looks for the next space with the BMA ethos, we at VG are searching for DIY spaces and publications that live up to their political and social obligations. We will continue this story next month with an interview with the folks at All Mutable - the Philadelphia booking collective behind some of Baird Atrium Mansions best shows.