Art event allows public into abandoned buildings
Friday, May 29th, 2009
You can explore abandoned buildings around Philadelphia, and not get arrested. The weekend launches the Hidden City project, where for the next month the public is invited to explore 9 sites that are deserted, deteriorating, or otherwise prohibited. Each site hosts an art installation or performance designed to accentuate the building's unique characteristics.
The 16 thousand square-foot Armory on 23rd street swallows up the 1/2 dozen dancers rehearsing.
But add 80 voices from the Mendelssohn Club Chorus, and the space fills up.
The Armory was built in 1900 as a horse stable for the First Troop Philadelphia City Calvary, the oldest active American military unit dating back before the Revolutionary War. The Armory was eventually paved over to accomodate humvees, tanks, heavy artillary… anything the military might need to get out of the rain. To everybody's surprise, including choreographer Leah Stein, it has remarkably good acoustics.
Stein: It's actually working better than I thought upon first view, because it really seems like a big parking lot.
The Armory is on the circuit of Hidden City, an art installation project that pairs buildings in Philadelphia with artists and performers. It's a bit like urban spelunking for the timid: audiences are able to get into what were locked and forgotten buildings to get a look the dilapitated grandeur of the past. Sometimes delapitated may be too gentle a word – two of the 9 sites requires audiences to wear hard hats.
Inside the buildings are art installations and performances highlighting its peculiar history and architecture. Like, this one:
The Shiloh Babtist Church in South Philadelphia. It's a bizarre maze-like compound of buildings built by one of Philadelphia's most prominent architects, Frank Furness, in 1886 through 1900.
Poteat: Very complex complex, that's what it is.
That's Lacey Poteat, he was baptised here 50 years ago. He says in its heyday the church had about 900 members. There were 7 pipe organs, and a roller rink. Now only one organ works, the rink is storage, and the congregation has shrunk to less than 300. Poteat points to the water damaged roof.
Poteat: You work with what you've got. You gotta rob Peter to pay Paul, you gotta fix this and let that go.
Under the church's 30-foot vaulted cielings and stained glass windows, artist Steve Earl Webber is installing ceramic lambs and goat horns, representing good and evil. He's a lapsed Christian, and says the Shiloh Babtist church is the perfect context for his piece questioning his own Evangelical upbringing.
Webber: I can put this in a gallery, it would still have similar meaning but I wouldn't have the organs and the grand ceiling that really makes the piece talk about Christianity.
Most of the buildings in the Hidden City project do not have organizations campaigning for their preservation, and this art project will not be doing any restoration work. Producer Jay Wahl says Hidden City is meant to bring public attention to these overlooked spaces.
Wahl: For a long time we've been down on ourselves. We have this inferiority complex to other cities or something. But we have all this rich treasures. We can't tell anybody about them if we don't know about them.
The general public is not allowed through the Girard College gate on Girard Avenue, and certainly to the top floor of its main building, Founders Hall. There are four large rooms up here, each with their own glass ceiling dome. The music you're hearing is a sound installation. The rooms were originally intended to be classrooms, but artist Steve Roden says they are perfect echo chambers.
Roden: You can tell acoustically these are the least conducive spaces to have a lesson. It's wonderful for a room to play sound in.
When it was finished in 1846 Founder's Hall had the largest interior space in the country with no support columns and floating marble staircases. Even the roof is made of marble. Roden says all that marble makes for interesting reverberations.
Roden: Quarters rolling in this space sound amazing because of these tiles. They make crazy sounds.
[do you have a quarter?]
I sure do.
Even though Girard College spent 1.3 million dollars to restore the roof in 2007, these top floor rooms have remained completely empty since 1916. For over 90 years their only visitors have been the occasional Girard College student.