In Strawberry Mansion, Making The Case For Adaptive Reuse

 

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The irresistibly curious, former Metropolitan Garage looks more like the Big Top than an auto shop | Photo: Oscar Beisert

When I give family, friends, and colleagues a tour of the city, we always drive by the mansion sites of East Fairmont Park. Rolling toward North 33rd Street the excursion slows down to point out the poorly maintained, but impressive Hatfield Mansion. Once across the old Pennsylvania Railroad right-of-way I never forget to point out the former Metropolitan Garage–one of the most interesting utilitarian oddities in Philadelphia.

Parkside Potential

The large, one-story brick warehouse, with its truly bazar parapet and roof configuration, hovers in its triangular lot at 1501-05 North 33rd Street, just northwest of where Amtrak separates Brewerytown and Strawberry Mansion. Overlooking both the railroad tracks and an incredible view of the city, the building features a vast façade of brick, amicably interrupted by stucco and glass at street level and a vehicle entrance. The garage is topped off with an unusual camel-back parapet and an over-built balloon roof. For most of its life, this 100-year old beast has been used for parking and servicing vehicles, a function that ended just after the last century. In 2013, ML Builders of Huntington Valley purchased the building for $150,000 with plans to demolish it.

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Dimensions are deceiving. Side view looking north | Photo: Oscar Beisert

“Cities have to grow and change,” says Ian Smith, of Ian Smith Design Group, when I asked him why razing the building was the only plan on the table. Smith filed a demolition permit application in 2013 on behalf of ML Builders.

Interior view of the second floor | Photo: Oscar Beisert

Interior view of the second floor | Photo: Oscar Beisert

In September 2014, L&I issued permits for new construction of a five-floor mixed-use building with balconies on every level but the commercial first floor. The Metropolitan Garage parcel is one of few in the area zoned for high density and mixed-use. Late last year, City Council unwisely approved steep downzoning of much of North Philadelphia from higher density multi-family to single-family residential. Smith said it was too early in the project to specify if the residential component of the project would be rental or owner-occupied. He couldn’t speculate on the size of proposed units or their cost.

The decision to build on the old garage’s lot likely has to do with the excellent view. Both the perception and reality of crime here matter, but the neighborhood bursts with beauty and architectural potential. A long block southeast of the newly restored SEPTA Bus Station at 33rd and Ridge there is a large, ornate vacant apartment building and vacant row houses, both large and small–many unique and impressive. The John Coltrane house is nearby along with plentiful vacant lots awaiting reinvestment.

A Matter of Significance?

“We fully researched the history of the building and it’s nothing important,” Smith says. Perhaps that’s true, on the face of it. In fall 1913, two publications—the Iron Age and Motor World Wholesale–announced that William Stellway, then proprietor of a Metropolitan Garage at 57th and Chestnut Streets, would open another garage at 33rd and Jefferson Streets (this is where Jefferson Street would be if it crossed the railroad line). The plans included a one-story garage, measuring 140 by 180 feet—a much wider version of the similar period building shown above. Guided by the precise strictures of the 8,700 square foot lot, the triangular building originally featured 16,402 square feet of interior space with electric lights, steam heat, and concrete floors, all of which sat beneath a large, ballooning wooden roof supported by light steel trusses. This large garage was designed to hold up to 65 cars. By July 1914, the garage was advertised as a Goodyear Service Station.

A similar, but smaller version of the 100-year-old Metropolitan Garage at 1501 N. 33rd Street—once a chain of service garages and auto suppliers that had a national presence in the 1910s |

A similar, but smaller version of the 100-year-old Metropolitan Garage at 1501 N. 33rd Street—once a chain of service garages and auto suppliers that had a national presence in the 1910s | World Motor Wholesale Magazine, 1916

The Metropolitan Garage offered all manner of services, from auto-maintenance, cleaning, parking, and even some sales. While much of the park-side streetscape along N. 33rd Street was devoted to large three-story row houses and impressive apartment houses, there were several auto-related business in the immediate vicinity. A contemporary of the Metropolitan Garage, the Fiat Motor Company Garage and Service Station, was located northwest across Natrona Street—an impressive, and extant, small garage. A car dealership constructed in the 1920s in a what was then a vacant lot roughly eight houses northwest of the garage is another interesting old building taking up its entire lot between N. 33rd and Natrona Streets.

What’s Appropriate?

While the prospect of new construction in Strawberry Mansion is exciting, not all development is good development. The notion that struggling neighborhoods like this one should accept anything often leads to poor-quality buildings. So why not hold off on this one–on a precious commercially-zoned lot–until developers have rehabbed some of the existing vacant housing stock? “An industrial building is really inappropriate across from a park, and in a neighborhood of homes,” says Smith. But this isn’t an industrial building. Rather, it’s a funny 100-year-old artifact of the automobile age, full of the kind of character this city is fast losing. Reuse it boldly and you might get something rolling.

About the author

Oscar Beisert is an architectural historian and preservationist activist. The Texas Wend is of both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Beisert co-authored The Photography of Henry K. Landis He is mid-level bureaucrat in federal historic preservation, has just finished his second row house conversion/restoration project, and can be found at almost every Wednesday night at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.



4 Comments


  1. I have driven in this neighborhood to drop off our daughter at the rented house near Temple University. Saw the new SEPTA bus station at 33rd & Ridge – handsome construction. Neighboring housing in deplorable condition. Developers should be chomping at the chance to construct affordable housing by rehabbing the shells especially located so close to a Transit Oriented Development location. People could live there and take the bus downtown to their work sites plus they have access to a large park across from the bus station. Much more development is occurring Temple University location and on Ridge Pike near Broad St which is about a mile away. Perception of crime is strong, but when I was driving, I never cringed or felt unsafe (helps to keep car in good running condition at all times!). So, this is opportunity for affordable development as city owned shells can be bought cheap for rehab. About the Metropolitan Garage, appears owner is not so sure if people will come to rent/buy the units he builds, nice view or not. Easy to advocate adaptive reuse when you do not own the property. Demo permit still in existence, owner may be trying to flip property to someone else. What it will take to rejuvenate Strawberry Mansion is brass balls developers willing to take a chance to renovate shells into attractive housing for people smart enough to see the wonderful park across the street and the ease of transportation.

    • James,

      I appreciate your comments. It’s always easier to talk about something as opposed to taking action; however, this article is part of a dialogue, regarding the careless development that is taking place throughout Philadelphia. The article seeks to address a component of the larger homogenization of Philadelphia’s incredible, old world built environment.

      Thanks,

      Oscar Beisert

  2. I have a hard time seeing why this building should be worth keeping. “Irresistibly curious”? I can resist that temptation…

    “Late last year, City Council unwisely approved steep downzoning of much of North Philadelphia from higher density multi-family to single-family residential.”

    This is just shocking. Jaw-droppingly idiotic. Criminally irrational. This is supposed to be a city, not a wannabe suburb of decaying rowhouses. Oh wait, that’s what much of North Philadelphia is, and city council wants to keep it that way!

    Why oh why does America have to be that backward place falling ever further behind the rest of modernity under the petrified leadership of corrupt incompetents.

    • TM:

      Seems we are at odds on this matter. The building last sold on the commercial market for $150K. If I’d been aware and/or looking, or perhaps an artist with a descent income stream, one could have carved out an apartment and used the main part as studio or commercial space. I’d have invested maybe $150-200K in renovations, making this badass garage more interesting at $350K than any of those modern, garage-fronted townhomes they build in Philadelphia at present. Down the line, a heavy-heart would sell it or rent it for resturaunt or venue space.

      The point is: it’s cool and has character. And as for the rezoning, I don’t agree with the decision, but I do believe that the dilapidated row houses can be reused and will retain quality unlike most new construction.

      Regarding the America you speak of, most see what you see, dilapidated row houses and old garages not worth saving. It’s a very typical viewpoint.

      Sincerely,

      Oscar Beisert

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