Historic spaces help boost emerging arts scene in NW Philly

When artists Colin and Andrea Keefe relocated from Brooklyn to Philadelphia, they wanted to settle into something with more green space to raise their son than the established artistic communities in Fishtown and Kensington.

So, they bought a house in West Mt. Airy and renovated its carriage house into the Mount Airy Contemporary Artists Space, where they exhibit local artists from out of their backyard.

“Just coming up that windy road through Lincoln Drive kind of felt like you were escaping the city and driving out into the wilderness,” says Keefe. “And then it opens up and you end up in this green space with all of these beautiful houses and it just felt like coming home in a way.”

A few blocks south on Germantown Avenue, Joel Erland and Kate Kaman, a married couple who operate a collaborative art firm, have been slowly moving into their new home, all four stories of it.

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Erland and Kaman moved from East Falls to an old industrial warehouse on the 6300 block of Germantown Avenue. It provides them with 9,000 square feet of room for their massive art projects; one of their most recent displays consists of 55 latex bacteria models suspended across a 120-foot stretch of ceiling at Temple University School of Medicine.

They’ve knocked out a section of floor on the second story to allow for more creative room, poured cement over their floors on the third and fourth stories and planted gardens on their roof.

Erland says he sees the potential for cultivating artistic growth and outreach with other artists and neighborhoods.

A handful of Germantown residents, through community programs like the Germantown Community Connection and Classic Towns Germantown, are steering Germantown toward becoming a new destination for its history and the arts.

The consortium of volunteers has proposed designating the neighborhood as an arts district, which would include Germantown Avenue, Greene Street and Wayne Avenue and stretch from Johnson Street to the railroad station at Wayne Junction.

“I think the artistic community and organizations are a real strength,” says David Hamme, a retired urban designer and volunteer for Classic Town Germantown. “Other communities make a real fuss about them. We have them, but we haven’t developed them in the sense in the community.”

Hamme says providing accessible tours of Germantown is a key factor in motivating people to venture up the “historic highway” of Germantown Avenue to explore the neighborhood.

And while Germantown boasts public historic landmarks such as the Johnson House and Cliveden, Hamme believes the neighborhood has even more buildings of historic interest in private ownership that will become an asset to potential homebuyers and developers.

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