Building housing 100 artists closed in Philadelphia over fire code violations

One of Philadelphia’s largest artist studio buildings, 915 Spring Garden, has been shut down due to fire code violations.

This week, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections gave 100 tenants two days — Wednesday and Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. — to grab what they can and leave behind the rest for an undetermined amount of time.

Last Wednesday the five-story building suffered a small electrical fire in a studio on the fourth floor. Painter Giuseppe Riviera happened to be working in his studio next door when he saw smoke in the hallway. He immediately called the fire department and ran outside.

“It could have been worse,” said Riviera. “If this happened at night, this building could have been an inferno. Everybody has chemicals. Everybody. I have thinner, linseed oil, stuff like that. Everybody has flammable things.”

The fire caused no significant damage, but a subsequent inspection by L&I found 30 code violations. The building was immediately closed.

“It’s a constructive eviction at this point,” said Craig Edell, who rented a U-Haul to clear out his wife’s fashion design studio. “It stinks. It’s a great building, a great community of artists. Nobody knows what’s going on.”

The building’s 75,000 square feet has been partitioned into 100 studios, each about 400 square feet, many hand-built by the tenant. Carol Cole, one of the original tenants, has made mixed-media sculptures here since 1981. She said it’s the best artist building in the city.

“It’s an art factory,” said Cole, whose double-size studio is lit by four windows. “It’s a community of artists to talk to, to get an opinion. When you want to get out of your studio and walk around, there’s somebody around to talk to.”

Tenants have no idea how long their studios will be off-limits. Cole expects to be back in a few months, but others fear they will be priced out after the landlord spends large sums of money on improvement to bring the building up to code.

According to a letter from the property management company — Pintzuk Brown Realty Group — sent to tenants on Tuesday, “this is a minute-by-minute discussion, as this matter is quickly moving up the ranks within multiple city departments.” Pintzuk Brown could not be reached for comment

Painter Riveria, who has occupied the building since the 1990s, was frantically pulling out canvases, easels, and an entire flat file cabinet out of his studio. He will be working out of his home until he can figure something out.

“I am taking as much as I can, especially finished artwork,” said Riviera. “I don’t think it’s going to be a week or a month. I think it’s going to be much longer.”

Next month, October 3 – 4, is the annual Open Studios art tour, when art lovers can visit artists where they work all over the Philadelphia. Normally 915 Spring Garden attracts many hundreds of people walking through the building, and many artists count on the traffic to network with new patrons and to sell work. However, most tenants do not believe they will be back in their studios by then.

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