Breathing new life into the vacant Masons’ Building

What was once a Masons’ hall, a neighborhood hardware store and a deli/produce market is now home to an eclectic display of sculptures, paintings and photographs.  

It’s part of a new arts collaborative, Infinite Inch, which occupies the first floor of the old Masons’ Building at the corner of Ridge and Midvale avenues in East Falls. 

Two of the masterminds behind it all are Peg Shaw and Noemi Armstrong who volunteer their time to prepare monthly events and exhibits. Shaw calls it a “win, win, win” for the neighborhood.

“Artists get the opportunity to show and sell their work, the community gets an opportunity to view and experience artwork and the commercial district gets a little jolt of excitment and energy out if it,” said Shaw.

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The collaborative aims to transform vacant commercial space into centers for artistic creativity. The program was inspired by a weekend art gallery held inside the vacant Masons’ Building last fall for the Arts by the River festival, organized by the East Falls Development Corporation. 

The owner of the building, Mark Sherman, who also owns Sherman Mills on Scotts Lane, allows the group to set up shop on the first floor of the building, free of charge. He even painted the walls and added a new heater to replace the space heaters they were using for exhibits.

“That building is pretty much the town hall,” Sherman said. “Most people don’t know what’s in it and I’m really excited to offer it to them to have exposure to the arts and to the building itself.” 

Sherman bought the building in 2003 with the hope of restoring it and bringing it back to its “original glory.” Nestled between busy Kelly Drive and Ridge Avenue, the green building with all the windows has long drawn the attention of passers-by, such as Armstrong, a fine art photographer who also works for the East Falls Development Corporation.

“I’ve been in love with this place since I moved here about 10 years ago,” said Armstrong. “The windows were always boarded up, you couldn’t see inside, I was always curious.” 

Once she and the other members stepped inside, their wheels started turning.

The large open space, surrounded by windows on the first floor, had massive potential as an art gallery. The second floor, which boasts a stage, balcony, dressing rooms and a vintage kitchen could eventually be used as a performance space.

“Dancers and theater people who have seen it have drooled,” said Shaw, who refers to the space as a potential gateway to the visual and performing arts in the Northwest section of the city.

So, what happens if someone approaches Sherman tomorrow with a bid for the building? Shaw says that shouldn’t be a problem. She’s already scoped out other vacant spaces along Ridge Avenue that have potential as temporary art galleries.

But it sure would be tough to let go of the existing space they’ve been given.

“This location is the anchor to the whole neighborhood,” said Shaw. “It’s a concept that is very common in malls where you have the big anchor stores around the others. This is essentially the anchor for the whole commercial corridor.” 

Each month, the arts collaborative hosts a new exhibit and reception to bring residents and businesses together. Last month’s exhibit brought in about 150 people.

Members of Infinite Inch hope to be part of a wave of similar arts initiatives throughout the city.

“To me, this is a gem, this is a diamond in the rough that needs to be prioritized. It could change this whole neighborhood,” said Shaw.

January’s exhibit will be held from 5 to 8 p.m., this Saturday, Dec. 8.  It will feature the artwork of Michael Daigeaun, Eric Kennedy, David Miles, Jill Galloway Sherman and Athena Petra Tasiopoulos. Infinite Inch is located at 4200 Ridge Ave. and is open from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

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