319 N 11th St
by Abby King
“Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”
A few years ago I decided to move out of my studio. It was my first real space after graduate school and this decision produced intense nostalgia and studio blockage. I couldn’t continue my current pieces. Rather than emotionally confront my move I started an art project on the space I was leaving.
The aforementioned studio was in the 319 N 11th st. building. A good chunk of the last six years I’ve been in Philly have revolved around the colloquially/annoyingly named Vox building, with events, numerous First Friday claustrophobia moments, and 2 dollar beers. As I prepared to leave, it dawned on me I knew nothing about the building I was so sad to let go. So spurred a project that was one part visual art and the other artist pretending to be historian, digging into the past and present inhabitants of the space.
I’ve reopened this searching, because, as many know, the building caught fire a few weeks ago, displacing not just me but 65 plus artists. Lately, I’ve found myself spewing too much of my knowledge onto friends and acquaintances, probably diverting the conversation from the premature cries of it’s “permanent” closure and the constant, “well gentrification, ya know” insights I was receiving.
As a non native to this area I’ve struggled to learn about the history of the arts community. To look forward I try to have a handle on what came before. If you’re from Philly you may already know this tale.
Since 319 n 11th st was built in 1937, making her 18 years younger than my Grandmother, this won’t be the incessantly long history lesson you might have worried about. According to the Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide, v. 52, n. 39, the architect was Frank Hahn and originally erected for a local cigar manufacturing company, Grabosky Bros Inc., specializing in Royalist and Amerada cigars.
What remains of the GBros industry isn’t much, though there’s still a humidor in the basement. From there the building began its long history of changing hands, from cigar to garment manufacturing to novelty and carnival supplies. These shifts from industry to warehousing can be seen across the neighborhood. Large brick spaces that once housed industrial strongholds became storage and, more recently, luxury condos. To no one’s surprise, between the industry and chic housing came the artists.
Before the migration of artists to the space, the building was purchased by its current owner, Robert Weinstein. While sitting down with Bob, strangely the first time I’ve met my landlord, we discussed his impetus for buying the building. He found space through a realtor and couldn’t beat the price. Other artists I’ve interviewed said Bob was called crazy at the time for buying property in such a rough neighborhood. At the time, the building was primarily used as warehousing and garment manufacturing. But in 1994 Bob marked a shift, “when NAFTA was passed the factories started to close down. Things start to change.” The vacuum left by industrial migrations and always rising rent led other constituents to find the space.
My research past this point moves away from archives and more on the generosity of peers. I sat down with a few people I knew, a few I didn’t, and asked them about their personal experiences in the building. Some things overlapped or contradicted. Some of it I can’t share though I wish I could. The evolution of the building feels akin to the changes in the neighborhood. In 2002 the setting was an overlooked patch of land, rough and untended with unruly tenants to match.
While interviewing present inhabitants of 319, I heard stories about a myriad of different renters. Many described an obese man, who carried a gun and built a room sized shower for himself. Another was a DIY dominatrix who was into purple, faux leather, and, as several artists pointed out, had poor craftsman skills when it came to his dungeon.
The first artist in the space was Scott Kip. He found 319 in happenstance, “pre craigslist, internet, Apple brand pocket computer. I just rode my bike around, writing down numbers.” Scott’s story is not a unique one. As he put it, “I went to school to learn how to make things and then I didn’t have anywhere to make them. I want to just have my own shop instead of renting. I’ll just make due without. I’ll sleep under the table saw. I’ll make a shelf and sleep on it.”
When Kip came to see the building it was an 820 square foot floor with no walls, just windows. He said, “It was a dream come true. Way bigger than I could use myself or afford myself. I got a bunch of friends to come together. Nobody else wanted to sign the lease so I did. We didn’t know what was going to happen...Somehow it worked. So that's that.”
Independently from Kip, another group of artists moved into the building around the same time. Hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio and Northern Kentucky, the group created Black Floor Gallery. Jamie Dillon, an early member, saw the value in 319 saying, 'It was so cheap... Areas like this were strange no man's lands still. The homeless shelter over there and the methadone clinic over there. This was post industrial weirdness.' Dillon continued saying, 'When we moved in here it was a brothel on the first floor, sewing shops on the second floor. Our neighbor on the 3rd floor was this obese drug dealer, named Gary.”
One previous resident, Stephen Dufala, marked the Black Floor gallery as another major shift in the building saying,“That whole chapter is what kicked it into art world mode…”
As more artists came, Scott Kip and his friends built sustainable studios for seven plus people, and at one point had a skating ramp on the sixth floor. Black Floor Gallery put on numerous exhibitions showing notable artists like Shepard Fairey, Alex Da Corte, and Swoon. In 2007 their DIY space was featured in the exhibition, Locally Localized Gallery, at the ICA. Dillon said the show highlighted the “Local, not to Philly, local to other places” The energy of the building had reached past the warehouse.
In the same year the most well known gallery in the space, Vox Populi, moved in. Their change in address was prompted by the Gilbert Building’s closure, a space that also housed Fabric Workshop, Asian Arts Initiative, and High Wire. The Gilbert Building was demolished to make way for the Convention Center’s expansion, giving its residents only a few months to leave. I’ve been told when Vox was housed in this space it’s aesthetic was closer to it’s neighbor, FMW. Vox was pushed into North Callowhill neighborhood by development, taking on the vibe of the neighborhood in it’s new space.
The role of the Convention Center’s development impacts more than just the history of the 319 building but entire neighborhoods. This structural behemoth cut the city into sections, acting as a barrier bisecting parts of Chinatown. Some have argued the Convention Centered caused the development of the Callowhill neighborhood to be overlooked, for a time. The confusion of even the specific neighborhood’s name is worth noting. It’s been called the Loft District, North Chinatown, North Callowhill, and Eraserhood. The ambiguity of identity is the byproduct of numerous factors, ones for another article in entirety. If you're looking for more the folks at hiddencityphiladelphia are always a great resource.
Back to the building. In 2007 the Convention Center development led Vox Populi to the 319 building, with aid of Vox member Jamie Dillion and prestige of Black Floor’s exhibition history. Vox Populi, as one interviewee put it is “the flagship store in the art mall.” In the 10 years following, artists and galleries gravitated to the space. Some have come and gone. Before the fire the space was occupied by Savery Gallery, Automat, Napoleon, Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Hiding Place Records, Marginal Utility, The Great Far Beyond, Grizzly Grizzly, Vox, and a myriad of studios, DIY spaces, print shops, and who the hell knows what else. This is the current state of the building most in the city are familiar with.
Jump to June 27th around 1.45 am. The back fire escape of the building caught fire. No one was harmed but the space was officially closed by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. Many of us read news that day that the building was closed indefinitely. While speaking with Bob, he told me the cause of the fire was unofficial though it is suspected as arson. But rather than share salacious tales the main point he kept reiterating is, “I have no plans of closing the building or selling.
The space at the moment is in flux. One positive outcome of the fire is watching community spaces rally together. Most notably, the 990 Spring Garden Building offered free exhibition space for galleries impacted by the fire. I’ve also heard of other institutions offering spaces to artists displaced for the summer. It was strange and lovely to witness the galleries of 319 sharing a more communal space and spreading out past small white cubes. Besides the coming together, others are taking the opportunity to shake things up. Tiger Strikes Asteroid is moving to the Crane Arts Building and the first floor gallery, Savery, is also reportedly moving. Not everyone is planning on leaving. Many folks are in limbo, holding out hope for the space to open back up.
Researching the history of the 319 Buildings sometimes felt like a Dummies Guide to Philadelphia and other East Coast cities. In 1935 they built things, big brick spaces for industrial manufacturing like cigars and other goods. In the 50’s, manufacturing was out, leaving garments and other small industries to take their place. Come to the early 2000’s when entire industries moved abroad leaving big cheap spaces affordable to the arts. Now, trend seekers, lofts, and coffee shops are following. Will the entire narrative of the space stand the test of time? Probably not.
But for now I have the words of individuals. Folks like Scott Kip who have said, “the neighborhood has been changing very rapidly for a long time.” Or Bob, despite numerous investors making him offers on the space, three suspect ones on the day of the fire, saying he isn’t selling. He is leaving the building to his kids. While interviewing Bob I wasn’t expecting his intense pride in the space. He told me “sometimes I drive by this building and can’t believe I own something like this.” Though not an artist himself, the man seems to want to hold onto the building because he likes what is housed in it. His hope is doors will be back open in September. I plan to be there when it does.