Developer who wants to turn Sigma Studios into condos wins delay at Historical Commission

In addition to hosting Stevie Wonder and David Bowie, Sigma Studios is where Philadelphia International Records – the Gamble, Huff, and Bell label – got its start.

The former Sigma Sound Studio building on North 12th Street.  (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The former Sigma Sound Studio building on North 12th Street. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Save for a blue historical marker, it’s hard to tell Philadelphia’s 200 block of N. 12th Street was once a hub where Philly Soul and that famous “Philly Sound” thrived in the 1970s, producing the music of greats like Teddy Pendergrass, The O’Jays, and Lou Rawls.

The property, which sits across the street from a parking lot and a block away from the Philadelphia Convention Center, once drew the likes of Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. It was where Philadelphia International Records – the Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell label – got its start.

From left: Kenny Gamble, Joe Tarsia, and Leon Huff during a mixing session in 1978 at Sigma Sound Studios. (Courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center)

“The music that was made in this building literally changed the world,” said Jack McCarthy, a historian and archivist in Philadelphia specializing in the city’s music history.

McCarthy and a handful of others tried to make a case Wednesday for why the building should be added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

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It’s part of a larger effort to eventually make the building a museum that would highlight the city’s influence on 20th-century popular music and prevent its demolition by the investors who bought the building in 2015 for $1.55 million, according to city property records. The building owner’s attorney Nino Tinari said the owners had, in 2019, rezoned the building for residential use. Permits filed with the city in 2018 indicate plans for a 10-story building with 26 dwellings, topped by a roof deck. The area where the building sits is gentrifying rapidly with formerly commercial or industrial buildings morphing into luxury apartments and condos.

“I also want to make aware that this property has already been zoned for a structure of various condominiums back in 2019,” said Tinari.

The likelihood that the building’s history could be overwritten by luxury dwellings only added urgency to the call to recognize its past.

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“This building is one of the most significant buildings in the entire nation to the history of recorded music in America,” said Aaron Levinson, who tried to convince members of the Committee on Historic Designation via Zoom.

Of the records produced at Sigma Studios, founded by Joe Tarsia in 1968, 200 went gold or platinum.

What’s more, argued music lovers and historians, the Sigma building is the last recording studio left from that period.

Sigma Sound Studios at 210-12 N. 12th Street in 1979. (Photo: Arthur Stoppe/Courtesy of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia)

Other iconic properties where artists helped fuel 20th-century music, such as Virtue Studios and Cameo Parkway, which was later bought by Philadelphia International Records, have been bought and sold.

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But for now, the fight to preserve the Sigma Sound building is on pause. Only a handful of people got to make brief comments about why the property deserved to be on the register before Tinari hopped on the call to ask for time to prepare his defense.

Tinari told committee members he wrote them a letter that was mailed through the U.S. Postal Service on August 10, expressing the owners’ opposition to the designation and requesting more time to prepare ahead of the meeting. The committee members said they’ve been picking up the mail when possible, though their office remains closed because of COVID-19.

A historical marker across from the old Sigma Sound Studios building. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The earliest the matter could be picked up is in September, otherwise the committee will come back to it in their October meeting.

Whenever the meeting takes place, it’s likely people like historian McCarthy will return to make the case that “if any building in Philadelphia music history deserves to be added to the register, it is this one.”

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