Philadelphia artists celebrate old railroad building they call home

Since 1981, an estimated 500 artists have come and gone through the five floors at the former railroad building and warehouse at 915 Spring Garden Street. Cut up into about 100 individual studios, it’s one of the oldest artist spaces in the city. It has resisted — or been ignored by — development for 30 years.

One of the originals, sculptor Carol Cole, curated a show of 54 paintings and photographs from 40 tenants, past and present. They are now on view at the American Institute of Architects, on Arch Street.

The studios are small — about 350 square feet — but each has at least two 4’x8′ windows. The paintings and photographs at AIA are views from the various studio windows.

“It’s not a beautiful neighborhood, but it’s a complex view,” said curator and sculptor Carol Cole, one of the original tenants from 1981. “It’s a puzzle of geometry. You’re seeing a hodge-podge of architecture and windows and spires and crazy things. Artists like light, not views. The light is very good.”

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The building has no gallery, no lounge, no kitchen, and no communal space. People sometimes knock on other tenants’ doors for a quick klatsch, but for the most part artists go there to work.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m going to work in the Art Factory, because there are shifts,” said Cole. “The weekday morning shift, that’s me, we see each other, we know each other, at least by sight. And then there’s a whole lot of people who work nights and weekends that see each other and never see the daytime people.”

The building was originally designed to be offices and overnight quarters for employees of the Reading Railroad. It has since been a textile factory, a printer, and a warehouse.

The owner in 1981, a gold merchant, wanted to rent out vacant space. Artist Steve Donegan had asked to rent a small space, but was forced to take on half the floor. He found other artists to sublet, and over the years the spaces expanded until Donegan was managing the entire building.

Four years ago, building ownership changed hands. The new owners have not indicated any interest in developing the property.

“I don’t believe the owners are the kind of people who will be the first ones on the block and take a chance to turn it into an adventure,” said Donegan. “I mean, some day it’s going to turn into something else. But we’ve had a pretty good run in that building, I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. I don’t think the economy in Philadelphia will address the issue of more condos.”

The building has always had a good roster of tenants because Donegal — an artist himself — asks prospective renters to show him their portfolios. He only rents to people he thinks are serious about what they do.

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