It’s been a rough two years for PhilaMOCA, a popular Callowhill arts venue in a former funerary showroom.
In 2019, the 531 N. 12th Street building –– an 1850s showroom for mausoleums and burial markers craftsmen Finney & Sons –– shut down after the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspection determined it wasn’t zoned for live performances and found a string of fire code violations. Then COVID-19 hit.
Finally, in late July, after nearly two years of closure, fundraisers had pulled in over $45,000 and nearly $80,000 in repairs to bring the building up to code, the venue reopened to packed crowds. But Monday night, L&I returned to post an orange sticker on the door of the venue, warning that the structure was unsafe and would be demolished if major repairs were not completed within 30 days.
PhilaMOCA manager Eric Bresler said Tuesday he was stunned: He had just spent months dealing with L&I to straighten out zoning issues, now without warning the agency said the building might need to be torn down.
“We reopened on July 22nd and things have been going extremely well since then. But last night that notice came out of nowhere. And, you know, we’ve literally had four L&I inspectors out here just this year,” he said. “That’s why this is such a shock…I thought all these kinds of city-related troubles were behind us.”
Bresler was also stunned by the lack of detail. The low-slung terracotta-clad building hadn’t been cited since reopening. The unsafe structure notice only contains two words in the description field: “front wall.”
The terse warning came after Bresler spent more than $30,000 out of pocket during the hiatus, he said. At this point, the venue manager would be happy to comply and work to further repair the structure, which is owned by the musician Diplo, but he’s unsure how to proceed.
“My guess is that there are a couple of cracks in the terracotta, but I’m not sure that those cracks would by any means mean that the building is going to collapse. Maybe that’s what needs to be fixed. I don’t know,” he said. “I have not received any details as of yet.”
Karen Guss, a spokesperson for L&I said the department split inspections into different divisions, so one group of inspectors that visited the site to check for fire code issues may not be looking for exterior conditions, or may have referred them to the appropriate division.
“In this case the front wall is structurally compromised, fractured and bowing outward, with loose stones,” said Guss. “It’s possible that the condition of the facade has worsened considerably since the zoning or fire code inspectors were out there last.”
Guss said a more detailed notice of violation and ways to rectify facade structural issues was in the mail.
“I hope the wall can be made safe quickly and inexpensively so that the owner can turn his focus back to the work of PhilaMOCA. But L&I’s focus always has to be safety,” she said. “No one is looking to demolish their property.”