Philly artists displaced by fire hope to return to Vox building

 The artists' studio and gallery space on North 11th Street, known as the Vox building, has been shuttered by a fire that broke out in a stairwell. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The artists' studio and gallery space on North 11th Street, known as the Vox building, has been shuttered by a fire that broke out in a stairwell. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Following a fire, one of the main hubs of Philadelphia’s community of underground and emerging artists has been shut down by the city Department of Licenses and Inspections.

The building at 319 N. 11th St. is informally known as the Vox building because an artists collective gallery called Vox Populi is its most prominent tenant. When it moved in almost 10 years ago, several smaller collective galleries followed. On monthly first Friday openings, it was a buzzing hive of artists.

The building was up to code — including a sprinkler system and steel fire doors — when the fire broke out in a rear stairwell early Tuesday morning, said Vox director James Merle Thomas.

“It worked exactly as something like this should have worked,” said Thomas. “A tenant noticed the fire, immediately called the fire department and pulled the fire alarm. Other tenants in their studios at the time vacated the building. The fire department came promptly and immediately set about extinguishing the fire.”

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It may have been a textbook example of how to react to a crisis, but the fire destroyed the wooden staircase, which served as one of the building’s two routes of egress. Without an alternative means to get out of the building, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections immediately shut it down.

Many artists are still waiting to get inside, retrieve their work, and assess damage from smoke and water.

The economy in that part of Chinatown North has been on the upswing as properties around the building undergo redevelopment. The rail park proposed for an unused elevated train track — passing directly outside 319 N.11th St. — could radically transform the neighborhood.

Now that the Vox building has been forcibly vacated, some tenants worry the owner will turn the building into condos. A similar small fire occur ed last year at the nearby artist studio building at 915 Spring Garden Street, now planned for redevelopment and forcing its artist tenants to relocate.

“That scenario is definitely a fear of mine,” said Michael Konrad of the art collective gallery Grizzly Grizzly. “I don’t know what’s going to happen one way or another.”

Thomas, at Vox Populi, is more confident he will be able to again occupy the building in a few months when repairs are finished.

“Vox has an extremely close relationship with the landlord” Robert Weinstein,” said Thomas. “The owner is extremely aware of the fact that the cultural landscape of the city is in a moment of transformation. By all accounts, he seems to be dedicated to maintaining the building for gallery space and studio practice.”

The tenants are now trying to figure out what to do, over the short and long term. Because of their philosophies as collectives, many prefer to work together to find a common alternative space. A large exhibition space called Icebox at the Crane Arts Building in the Kensington neighborhood has extended an offer to host the collectives temporarily.

Editor’s note: 915 Spring Garden is not being converted to condos, but being redeveloped as mixed-use office/retail/light manufacturing. An earlier version of this story identified the property as being turned into condos.

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