Unsanctioned And Inspired In The Wissahickon

 

The Spot in Autumn | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

It’s called The Altar, The Wall, The Rock Spot and even Shrinetown. Locals speculate that it’s the remains of an old mill or some ancient Indian ruin. An unconfirmed source says that the Army Corps of Engineers named it an “historic dam abutment” in their recent Wissahickon Creek Feasibility Study.

But what is it really?

The two men who created it just call it “The Spot.” They built it alongside an undisclosed tributary of the Wissahickon creek between 2004-2007. The only tools they used were shovels. “It’s the equivalent really of graffiti,” says S, one of the artists behind the project. He should know, he’s also a familiar Philadelphia street artist, who is also known as Radius. Although the project isn’t destructive, it was certainly never sanctioned by any official body, and the artists wish to remain semi-anonymous.

S & R, Identities Obscured | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

I visited The Spot with S and co-creator R on a recent spring afternoon. As we approached from a small path, we noticed a man was sitting trailside directly above it. Invisible from the trail, he had no idea what was tucked into the hill directly in front of him. We exchanged greetings and turned down a path to the creekside.

The simplest way to describe The Spot is as a series of terraces built into the Wissahickon Schist bedrock. With that said, what R&S built is not only impressive in design and ambition, but nearly flawless in execution. Using available stone washed into the adjacent creek, they fit their walls and terraces together like a puzzle. It’s an organic design built for human activity. There’s a long bench curved around a fire pit. There are stairs that lead to different levels and single chairs that emerge from in spots in the stone. The power of place that they coaxed from the hillside is as impressive as the engineering effort that went into building it.

“We’ve met and heard of a lot of artists and writers that have said that they come here for inspiration.” says R.

I asked if they had a plan when they started on the project. “I had a vision of the first floor,” says S,  “…but everything else is R’s idea. It was a constant process of me being like I think it’s finished and he’s like, no let’s do this!” While neither had any direct professional experience before the project, both have plenty now. S works in landscaping and R does stonework professionally. Both are native Philadelphians and have been coming to this section of Fairmount Park since they were kids.

Lower Levels | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

As The Spot has become better known, R&S have launched other projects in the Wissahickon. An ambitious plan to build a “winter shelter” in a grove of white pines was abandoned for a smaller scale project. Called “The Horseshoe,” the artists used stones excavated directly from the site to build a small arc of a wall/bench. Pine needles make the ground soft. Shade has encouraged moss and ferns to grow on the stone.

Down in the floodplain, next to a marshy expanse of skunk cabbage, they’ve built a large stone bench in a small clearing. In another area of the park, they’re at work building what they describe as a teepee.

Sanctioned or not, The Spot is built to last. It’s already survived Hurricane Irene and nearly a decade of severe seasonal flooding. Light maintenance has been needed, but its been minimal. Whatever future generations call it or wherever they think it came from, it will remain for them to enjoy.

Floor Detail | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

Stairway | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

View From First Terrace | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

View From Creek | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

Wall Detail in Autumn | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

Wall and Creek | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

R in Background | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

Transplanted Japanese Maple | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

Upper Terrace in Autumn | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

Stairway Stonework detail | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

Chair Built Into Upper Terrace | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

The Horseshoe | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

Stone Bench | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

Rear View of Bench | Photo: Steve Weinik

 

 

About the author

Steve Weinik works a photographer for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. He also freelances in photography, writing and documentary film. His work has been widely published in print and on screen. You can see more at steveweinik.com.



17 Comments


  1. This is absolutely beautiful and a true masterpiece of stone craftsmanship. So, where is the spot in the park??

  2. All I can say is that you can find it along the Cresheim Creek in the general vicinity of the old dam.

  3. I’m sure this won’t be popular with visitors to this site but there is an element of this whole effort that bothers me. I admire the craftsmanship and the inspiration, but this is natural, public property which has been set aside as a wild place for posterity. This is fundamentally different from dropping Toynbee tiles on Chestnut Street or spraying graffiti on the side of a subway car. If everyone goes into our parks and hidden natural gems and decides to alter the environment — regardless of how cool we think it looks or well meaning the architects — these places simply won’t exist anymore. Leave no trace is an important ethic which I feel these dudes would be wise to obey.

    • in today’s world of rampant obesity, adhd, and video games, it is unlikely that too many people will take the time or have the will to create anything like this. i understand your fears john, but it’s unlikely to be a problem.

    • Yeah, I sincerely doubt that everyone will suddenly desire to alter natural environments based on this masterful feat. I get what you’re saying John, but even right in the Wissahickon, there are larger problems, namely those of litter and graffiti. The Spot is in a relatively hard-to-find, um, spot in the Wissahickon and is thoughtfully engineered. It’s so well done that it COULD have been sanctioned, but that it was not makes it that much cooler, and Philadelphian.

      I’m sure the Anasazi indians practiced leave no trace, but no one would go to Mesa Verde if they hadn’t built the cliff dwellings.

    • I wrote the article, so you can guess where my opinion is, but…

      In my wanderings around Fairmount Park, I’ve found a whole range of places that people have set up. Most of them are a clearing with a firepit and a bunch of broken bottles. One had an old zipline. The scariest was a “party shack” with a moldy old sofa and a really, really creepy feel. All of them use materials dragged into the woods from elsewhere. I totally agree with you that these places have a general tendency tarnish the park.

      The spot was built using materials collected from the area around it. A good percentage of it is probably old mill ruins. It was built into a badly eroded hillside that’s invisible from all trails around it. In my mind, it’s more akin to the Cave of Kelpius, or the old ruins, ice houses, fallen bridges and places like that.

      If the river were transhed up and down with shacks, trash firepits and broken bottles that would be terrible… but if we had hundreds of people building acres of stone structures in the spirit of this place, I think that would be the coolest work of public art in any city anywhere.

    • The simple act of you being in the park alters the environment. At least these acts provide a sense of place that is inline with the environment and the “natural” surroundings. More so, than a wooden bench would be.

  4. Bravo Bravo Bravo

  5. Beautiful, thanks for sharing this.

  6. David Dannenberg

    Good craftsmanship. I have seen it. Most rock seems salvaged from old mill, dam, and roadwork there. This is a naturalized area, but not a natural area. The Wissahickon is in effect one the county’s first brown field conversions–albeit a 19th century version which left behind stone, iron, and rock, and nothing toxic that would last more than a few years. There were 35 mills from the confluence with the Schuykill to the city line.

    Anyway, I would NOT encourage anyone to do unsanctioned work in the Wissahickon, the quality of this project notwithstanding. There is plenty of stone work that needs to be done in the Wissahickon and skilled experienced masons who want to contribute to the effort would be most welcome.

    I encourage the artists to contact the Friends of the Wissahickon if they want to help out.

  7. I agree that this is better than trash strewn along the creek but my issue is that there was no consideration of how removing these stones from the creek would effect runoff and erosion. And from the looks of it, quite a large amount of stones were removed. This will effect not only the immediate area but also everything downstream. Some of us enjoy fishing the Wissahickon and would like to continue to do so. Just as with littering, this project shows little forethought to its long-term effects.

  8. I don’t want to discount the effects of this structure, but the problem of erosion and creek maintenance is much larger than this spot on the stream and is addressed in the army corps/water department report. I couldn’t find it, but apparently they cited the structure as an historic dam abutment. Ironically, the report was more concerned with eroded debris in the creek and on the hillsides around it, both of which this accidentally helps. I won’t pretend that this was the intent of the builders.

  9. I certainly don’t know if there was any negative effect on the area and there may well be some positive effect as you say but, as you also pointed out, there appears to be no consideration of this on the part of the artists in designing this vanity project. One aspect that could be an issue, especially if exposure starts to drive up interest, is that foot traffic to the area may cause erosion around it since it seems that low-impact access to the area was not part of the project. (I could be wrong on this but your piece makes it sound like it is almost hidden and that there is no access from the trail above.)

  10. Great article. Amazing pictures!

  11. I think Chuck and john need to relax. Not only is the spot beautiful and well-built, it seems it actually helps with the erosion problem. Old mill stones are all over the Valley Green area. This was a highly industrial area that ahs since been allowed to just be. Philadelphia puts virtually no funding into the upkeep of its glorious park, so I see nothing but positive from this type of enterprise. Besides, humans have been piling rocks for millenia and altering their environments (think pyramids and such). I guarantee youthere is nothing “natural” as in untouched by humans, in the entire Philadelphia area. It’s all been altered.

  12. Judith, I’m sorry but I think it’s irresponsible. You are free to disagree. I’m not arguing for the “purity” of the natural surroundings but, As John said, if everyone were to go and alter whatever they wanted at their whim, we might not be so lucky to get a result like this. If people want to volunteer to create projects like this within established guidelines such as by contacting the Friends of the Wissahickon, as David suggested, then by all means. Otherwise, this is, in my mind, actually worse than graffiti. As it stands, it is someone’s vanity art project in a natural area shared by many residents. Consider this: what happens now when kids decide to destroy it? It’s certainly not a permanent structure and I didn’t read anything about planned upkeep.

  13. I was hesitant to jump into this conversation because I realize that people have very different views on public space. As someone who knows the creators of the spot personally, I was compelled to speak upon some unfair assumptions that have surfaced in response to this article. I’ve been visiting the Spot since it’s conception. It is a place that is enjoyed during every season by all kinds of folks. It was clearly designed to be used by more people than just the creators and their friends. S and R see the place as a continuation of the natural landscape and have worked hard to keep it that way. This includes cleaning up trash, scrubbing spray paint off the walls, and rebuilding areas which have been damaged by human traffic or natural occurrences such as floods and erosion. One of the concerns raised was that the construction depleted the stones in the area. People may be surprised to learn that the floods which Cresheim creek is accustomed to are powerful enough to not only move large stones but also large amounts of stone downstream. Within a year of the completion of the Spot, there were actually more stones in the area than before they had started. I find it telling that in all of the time the creators have spent working on this project, not one of the many folks who’ve happened upon them have ever had a negative response. To me, the Spot is a sacred space which draws people together, an organic structure created in harmony with the forest.

Trackbacks

  1. Looking for Love in All the Right Places | TheSantaStory.com Blog
Recent Posts
PATCO Announces $7.5 System Upgrade

PATCO Announces $7.5 System Upgrade

April 16, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Clearer information and working escalators for PATCO, delays in UC student housing development, the William Penn Foundation’s new approach to safe watershed awareness, and what the Lower Northwest invented for the world > more

A Golden Glow For <em>The Inquirer's</em> Saffron

A Golden Glow For The Inquirer’s Saffron

April 15, 2014  |  News

Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize board announced its 2014 winners. After 15 years with a watchful eye on Philadelphia's built environment, the Inquirer's Inga Saffron won journalism's highest award for criticism > more

Advocacy Group To Urge Lawmakers To End “Lingering” Zoning Variances

Advocacy Group To Urge Lawmakers To End “Lingering” Zoning Variances

April 15, 2014  |  Morning Blend

CDAG to work towards “reasonable sunset provisions” on waterfront development proposals, the promise of the Mantua Promise Zone, Charles Willson Peale and the revolutionary museum imperative, SEPTA to test all-night subway service this summer, and cherries blossoming in Chestnut Hill > more

Tonight Over Philly: Lunar Eclipse vs Terrestrial Weather

Tonight Over Philly: Lunar Eclipse vs Terrestrial Weather

April 14, 2014  |  Buzz

A total lunar eclipse will happen in the southwestern sky around 3am tonight whether we can see it or not. In the event that the weather will cooperate, Brad Maule chatted with The Franklin Institute's Derrick Pitts about how best to view it > more

An Evening Home For Wayward Sons

An Evening Home For Wayward Sons

April 14, 2014  |  The Shadow Knows

Unless you've intentionally walked down Center City's Van Pelt Street between Ludlow and Chestnut Streets, chances are you have, like us, passed by the 120-year-old building home of De La Salle in Towne. But where The Shadow lurks, there be stories, and this one has a long history of social well being > more

Ground Broken On Luxurious AQ Rittenhouse

Ground Broken On Luxurious AQ Rittenhouse

April 14, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Old YWCA annex makes way for 12-story luxury apartments in Center City, Feibush calls foul in latest Kenyatta Johnson move in Point Breeze, a lack of ambition at South Broad’s St. Rita’s Shrine, and how Gratz High turned itself around > more