History unraveling as Wayne Junction silk yarn mill comes down

Piece by piece, in piles of wood and chunks of old concrete and brick, the former Van Straaten and Havey silk mill building in Wayne Junction is coming down.

The city began demolition on the vacant building at 133 Berkley St. last week, and workers will take about another month to tear the structure down and clear the property, said Tim Humes of Domino Excavating, at the site Tuesday.

Much of the rear of the building is already gone, and two track excavators were clawing away pieces of floors and crumbling interior walls. Some minor asbestos removal has been done, he said.

“It was definitely dangerous, it was collapsing internally,” Humes said. “The brick was OK, but you have the threat of fire” from wood support beams and interior portions.

Historical record

The building is among the 17 former industrial sites included in the Wayne Junction National Historic District, which recognizes a long period in Philadelphia’s history when the streets surrounding the train station were alive with industrial activity.

Between the 1870s and the mid-1950s, dozens of mills, factories and technology companies flourished in the area roughly bounded by West Berkley Street, Roberts Avenue and Germantown and Wayne avenues.

This weekend, Hidden City Philadelphia will host a sold-out walking tour of the area, which includes the Max Levy Autograph Co. building, the historic Wayne Junction station and the Arguto Oilless Bearing Company, among others.

The varied sizes and architectural styles reflect the range of businesses done in the buildings, everything from the manufacture of self-sharpening “china marker” pencils and pushpins to delicate photographic engraving.

Most of the buildings are vacant, and many have suffered the effects of long-term vacancy and blight.

One of 25,000 vacants

The Van Straaten and Havey property is owned by a seemingly defunct non-profit, the Eddie Francis Cancer and Recovery Foundation.

The Department of Licenses and Inspections deemed it in imminent danger of collapse once a portion of the ceiling fell in and undermined a support wall, said spokeswoman Maura Kennedy. Before that, the site had racked up property maintenance violations for trash, weeds and being unsecured.

Built in three phases between 1919 and 1928, the 50,000 square-foot, four-story complex had 17-foot ceilings, floors more than a foot thick, and a fireproof “silk vault,” according to a report included with district’s nomination for historic designation.

By 1950, the property had been sold and housed the No Mend Hosiery Co. Fourteen years later,  it was vacant, and now it is one of roughly 25,000 vacant properties in Philadelphia.

Covering demo costs

The $181,900 cost for the demolition will come from a federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 grant, Kennedy said.

The money was awarded to allow the city to do targeted demolitions and redevelopments in Mantua, Point Breeze and Nicetown, and $700,000 from the same fund was also used to take down a large former industrial building at 1801 Courtland St., she said.

It’s unclear if there are plans for the Berkley Street site beyond the demolition, though local developer Ken Weinstein has said it might make for a good parking lot for the development he’s planning across the street at the Max Levy building.

While there hasn’t been a large community outcry to save the building, local activist Allison Weiss has decried the empty spot on the street that would be left.

Matt Wysong, the Planning Commission’s Northwest community planner, said the building is a favorite of his, but was beyond saving.

“The way it existed as a building, it was just too much,” he said, and the property could end up being more valuable as a cleared lot than a derelict factory.

For the time being, at least, the property remains privately owned.

“The owner still owns it, and he’s still in charge of maintaining it,” Kennedy said.

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

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