Wish You Were Here

Love for a building is a curious kind of thing. The relationship isn’t long on conversation. Mostly, there is a lot of looking, yet something blooms in the heart nonetheless. People felt this way about the Victory Building on Chestnut Street during the 1980s and 1990s, and some folks feel this way now about the Divine Lorraine on North Broad Street. There is something irresistible about a damsel in distress.

I first started having feelings for the Cramp Turret & Machine Shop in high school. This was surprising. Like most teenagers, I was somewhat oblivious to the city around me. I’m still a little ashamed I never noticed there was anything special about the Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street, an Art Deco jewel, until I went to a benefit for the building 13 years later. To us, it was just a good place to ditch class. The Cramp building touched something inside me, though. That football field’s worth of windows was so lovely in the golden light of late afternoon. What had they built inside there? Why had they stopped? It seemed as mysterious as the pyramids to me.

Much later, I came to know some of the building’s history. It was the last structure left from the Cramp Shipyard, a business that had dominated that stretch of waterfront for more than a century. War was good for Cramp. The company built the “New Ironsides” for the Union during the Civil War, and boomed again during WWI. The company went belly up in 1927, but was called back to action during WWII, when it employed more than 15,000 people and covered 65 acres. The shipyard closed for good shortly after war’s end, and all of its buildings were torn down save this one.

Even with my adolescent questions answered, the sheer fact of the Cramp building still filled me with wonder, and I often returned to photograph it. Then one day last winter the heavy equipment came and began dismantling the building. The west wall went first, so one Sunday morning I stepped around a fence and walked inside the great hall for the first time. The building had been used for storage in recent years, but by then the interior had been cleaned out, and the emptiness made the place seem even more immense. A few years before, the bottom row of windows that faced east had been painted red to cover graffiti, and now they gave off a ruby glow in the early morning light much like the stained glass windows of a cathedral.

Like so many of Philadelphia’s historic buildings, Cramp met its demise at the hands of a highway–in this case, an on-ramp for I-95. It deserved better, but it’s hard to see how this outcome could have been avoided, given PennDot’s traditional obliviousness to historic buildings. All that’s left now is a few piles of brick on a concrete slab, and I feel a small pang whenever I drive by. That feeling will fade with time, but I doubt it will ever disappear entirely. Affairs of the heart are like that.

 

 

 

Peter Woodall is the co-editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.



3 Comments


  1. She was a beautiful and massive building. The butterfly roof was amazing. So much history there, it is a shame they tore her down.

  2. The last building of a shipyard that employed 18,000 at a time, helped us win WWI and WWII, and fostered the invention of the Slinky. Not so much as a historic marker. Just a field, some bricks, and a concrete ramp. History deleted.

  3. ” it’s hard to see how this outcome could have been avoided.”

    Is it? For the past 60 years we have made ourselves busy with the task or destroying acres of our precious, precious city, left here by our far smarter ancestors, to accommodate ever-widening roads. We continue to fail to learn from our huge mistakes and even bigger failures, and it seems like we never will.

    My solution to avoiding this outcome? Don’t build an onramp.

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

 

Recent Posts
Hidden City Campaign Passes Halfway Point On Way To $30,000

Hidden City Campaign Passes Halfway Point On Way To $30,000

December 8, 2016  |  Buzz

Needed still to reach must-get goal of $30,000: about 180 readers to give $15, $25, $50, $75, or more! > more

Fade And A Shave: Inside Philly's Black Barbershops

Fade And A Shave: Inside Philly’s Black Barbershops

December 7, 2016  |  Last Light

Contributor Theresa Stigale documents life inside neighborhood barbershops with this photo essay > more

America's Oldest Road Takes Center Stage In New Documentary

America’s Oldest Road Takes Center Stage In New Documentary

December 5, 2016  |  Vantage

The King's Highway, the oldest continuously used road in America, is the subject of an award winning documentary premiering tonight at the Kimmel Center > more

A Moving Monument

A Moving Monument

December 5, 2016  |  News

Nearly four years after Hidden City proposed relocating the forlorn Newkirk Viaduct Monument from the side of the train tracks to the forthcoming Bartram's Mile segment of the Schuylkill River Trail system... that has happened. Brad Maule has the story of the 177-year-old monument's relocation > more

Inside SEPTA's Unused Underground Concourse, To Be Restored

Inside SEPTA’s Unused Underground Concourse, To Be Restored

December 2, 2016  |  Last Light

The Center City Concourse, a network of underground pedestrian walkways, has sat empty and largely unused for decades. But big plans are in the works to reopen and reanimate the dead space. Samantha Smyth and Chandra Lampreich takes us into the abandoned tunnels with this photo essay > more

Location Is Everything: Confessions Of A PhillyHistory User

Location Is Everything: Confessions Of A PhillyHistory User

November 30, 2016  |  Vantage

Volunteer PhillyHistory.org geotagger Louis Lescas is an urban historian, map wiz, and human GPS system all wrapped up in one. In this personal essay he shares his love and obsession with hunting locations of old photos for the Philadelphia City Archive > more