Hidden City Festival opens doors to Hawthorne Hall and its past as secret society headquarters

What do the Knights of Pythias, a secret society established in 1864, and the Irish National Foresters Society, once the largest friendly society in Ireland, have in common? 

At various times these societies, along with New Light National Baptist Church, New Beginning Inc., and Christ Ministries, Inc., have called Hawthorne Hall their home.

If you’ve traveled along Lancaster Ave, you’ve likely seen the outstanding, curved apartment block with terra-cotta sculptures, a detailed roof line, pressed metal oriel windows and other intrigue. Few though have had the chance to experience the stately, yet decrepit building. Now, during Hidden City Festival, curious Philadelphians can explore Hawthorne Hall’s second-floor theater, fragments of the hall’s fascinating history, and the artistic interpretations of Rabid Hands Art Collective.

In recognition of the societies that once inhabited the space, the collective has created its own Society of Pythagoras and turned the theater and hall portion of Hawthorne Hall into a labyrinth of history, architecture, culture and imagination that leaves visitors feeling like they’ve stepped down a rabbit hole. 

The maze of rooms and cubby holes, hidden pockets and eery lighting are enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. But to get the full experience, attendees can’t be afraid to peek behind doors and curtains or follow apparent dead ends. Each turn offers another glimpse of what might have existed in this mysterious space and feeds the imagination of those curious as to what really went on here. 

Throughout the exhibit, trinkets, gongs, flags, symbols, shrines and more hearken back to the building’s days as headquarters for the various fraternal and religious organizations. 

Here, the building’s previous inhabitants held everything from meetings to performances, dances, boxing matches and church services. The installation pays homage to the different time periods, beliefs, and uses that have, at one point or another, found their way into the space. In a sense, it’s almost as if Hawthorne Hall, sealed off from the majority of people for so long, is its own time capsule that Rabid Hands has given a good shake and then spun in the collective’s unique creative direction. 

The facade of the historic building alone is enough to have many daydreaming about what the building looked like in its former glory. 

The theater is just once space within Hawthorne Hall, the sweeping, apartment block that curves against the diagonal of Lancaster Ave where it intersects with Hamilton and 39th streets. Originally built in 1895 on the grounds of a former lumber yard, the apartment block contained housing, first-floor commercial space, and, of course, this theater space.

Perhaps most intriguing is the question of what the future has in store. People’s Emergency Center (PEC) Community Development Corporation recently purchased the property and hopes to restore the space. It is still too soon to say what Hawthorne Hall will look like in its next life though. 

As with all of the Hidden City Festival events, descriptions and photographs pale in comparison to the experiential exploration that each site offers. Each is best seen first hand. More information on locations, hours, ticketing and day passes can be found here

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