Inside Old City’s woodworking time capsule

As part of the Hidden City Festival this year, the John Grass Wood Turning Factory at 146 North 2nd Street offers visitors a look inside a workshop out of the past, preserved in its place in the middle of Old City.

John Grass began his wood turning business in Old City in 1863 and in 1911 the next generation of owners moved its operations to North 2nd Street. The workshop remained active, using vintage equipment and traditional methods for turning wood, until 2003.

The building currently stands vacant and fell in grave disrepair since being closed a decade ago. The second story is not safe for occupation and visitors and volunteers are prohibited from entering. Upon walking into the first floor, the reasons why are apparent.  Much of the plaster and lath ceiling is exposed and crumbling. There are plywood sheets laid over more holes and termite-eaten rotten boards in the floor.

I attended one of Festival’s docent-led tours on Saturday.

The entrance, located on the east facing side of the building along a narrow alley, brings visitors directly into the first floor workshop. Once inside, a small walkway projects into the space to give visitors a glimpse into the vast workspace. A partition separates visitors from the large machines and tools left inside. The scent of warm wood wafted out into the alley from inside the shop. Most visitors were not permitted to pass the partition. I was fortunate enough to be invited to pass the divider and wander around farther back into the space.

It was extremely hot and humid inside. Large machines intended to sculpt wood are still operational and take up every corner of the room. Tools were scattered on every surface and it appears as though the workers just left the building for a break and never came back. I imagined what it must have been like for the 16 people who would have been squeezed into the small workshop on a hot Philadelphia day like this one. There is even still a row of lockers intended for the workers lined up against the back wall.

The workshop was never fully modernized and most likely looks very similar to the way it did when it first opened. It is amazing to remember that the shop had been fully operational until 2003 when it was shut down and sealed away.

Volunteers from the Wood Turning Club of Maryland were present to give a demonstration and explain the uses for all of the tools and machines. Thickness planer, drill press, swing saw, chop saw, joiner and glue pots were all pointed out and pulled from various corners of the room. It was very difficult to move around due to the large amount of things amassed in the space. Pulleys holding line shafts and belts hung from the ceiling and were formerly used to move the large pieces of wood, which were still piled to the ceiling in every corner. Many of the machines were the original pieces from when the shop opened in the 1890’s and altered only slightly over time.

After the tour, the docents encouraged visitors to walk down the adjacent alley and visit The Center for Art in Wood. A large mural sets the building apart from the rest of the block. It is a modern extension of the work once built at the John Grass wood shop located less than a block away.

Currently, the John Grass Wood Shop is owned by The Philadelphia Chapter of the United Carpenters and Joiners of America. There are plans to conduct studies of the foundation and structure. The volunteers I spoke to are hopeful that the space will be rehabilitated, but unfortunately, a recent estimate reaches over $5 million. 

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