Monument Lab Artist Stands Up For The City’s Lost Stoops

 

Monument Lab artist Kaitlin Pomerantz on one of her favorite stoops, the “double wide lavender” at 48th Street and Gray’s Ferry Avenue. | Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

Philadelphia-based artist Kaitlin Pomerantz has been hunting for abandoned stoops. She is one of 20 artists selected to participate in Monument Lab, a public art and history project sponsored by Mural Arts that kicks off this September. The outdoor art happening will stage over 20 installations in public spaces around the city, each a response to the prompt “What is an appropriate monument to the current city of Philadelphia?” Pomerantz’s answer? The row house stoop.

In the fall, an assortment of stoops Pomerantz has collected from demolished houses throughout the city will be installed in Washington Square Park where they will temporarily serve as public art, seating, and a community conversation piece. The placement of abandoned stairs in the park, one of the original five public squares laid out by William Penn, feels pertinent. The stoops will undoubtedly spark discussion about Philadelphia’s growth and booming redevelopment. Appropriately, Pomerantz’s outdoor installation will be located just blocks from Society Hill, a famous urban renewal success story, which uncharacteristically utilized historic preservation alongside redevelopment. The art piece is also within proximity to Jeweler’s Row. The fight to save five historic buildings along the nation’s oldest diamond district, currently threatened by demolition and redevelopment, has sparked public anger and a citywide discussion around the shortcomings of Philadelphia’s current approach (or lack thereof) to historic preservation. Less obviously, in their heft and monumentality, the stoops will also give a subtle nod to the park’s early history as a potter’s field.

A stoop remains after demolition of a rowhouse at Aspen and North Preston Streets. | Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

Although a simple, architectural component, the stoop is a symbolic one. Derived from the Dutch word stoep, stoop refers to the raised platform at the entrance of a house, but has come to refer to the entire stairway unit leading up to a front door. Stoops were sometimes large enough to accommodate small benches and were often covered, functioning almost as a miniature porch. In Philadelphia, they are most often compact, simple, and a magnet for sitting on. As a city of row houses designed for efficiency and affordability, the majority of Philly’s stoops are relatively small, between one and five steps, and constructed of marble, brownstone, brick, or concrete.

Stoops have long been an object of urbanists’ affection, most notably by urban activist Jane Jacobs, who regarded the stoop as the ideal space for facilitating “eyes on the street.” Most prevalent on urban row houses, stoops, and their use by community members, can speak to a neighborhood’s health, safety, and vitality. “I think it speaks to the power of the object itself—the stoop. It seems like every single person has a story or anecdote,” Pomerantz muses. Throughout the process of stoop collecting, she has encountered a number of people eager to share stoop stories. Recollections of neighborhood games of “stoopball,” intergenerational cleaning or step rotating techniques, and special recipes for whitening marble stoops that have been passed down by grandmothers speak of the stoop as a memory collector. “All these backstories and contextual elements make the project a lot richer,” Pomerantz notes, adding that she hopes to continue to collect and share more stories as part of the project.

Weathered brownstone stoops peek out beneath layers of paint in West Philadelphia. | Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

The concept is straightforward enough, but stoop collecting has not proved to be a particularly easy task. Pomerantz remarks of the process, “It definitely has a hunt element to it, where you feel like you have to be at the place at the exact right time with the right equipment or else you’ve missed the opportunity.” The pace of citywide demolition has proven to be a real challenge. “Because construction happens so quickly, frankly it’s just easier for materials to end up in the waste stream than to get salvaged and sorted appropriately.” After a number of attempts to secure owner permission to salvage stoops from homes to be demolished, Pomerantz had to reconsider her approach, turning instead to people on the other side of the demolition process.

“I really wanted to be at this particular building and be able to take the stoop right then and there,” says Pomerantz who was hoping not only to collect and reassemble stoops, but also to note where they originated and collect from various parts of the city. “But instead, I”ll get a call from a demolition guy and he has three stoops that day because they demo’d three homes. Sometimes he knows the addresses and sometimes he doesn’t.”

Stoops are a challenge to move and expensive to replace, especially those made of quality marble and brownstone, materials that were once abundant, but are now almost prohibitively expensive for many homeowners. They can also be somewhat architecturally complex. Although they may look like stacked, solid stone, a typical stoop actually consists of multiple parts, including a series of solid, rectangular stone steps that are flanked by thinner stone facing on the side (adorably called “cheeks” in stone mason parlance) and a mortared brick fill. Fortunately, Philly’s local bricklayer union, Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, has heroically stepped in offering to store, reconstruct, and install all of the stoops for the project free of charge.

Stoop materials laid out for reassembly at the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1. | Photo: courtesy of Kaitlin Pomerantz

Pomerantz has also been working with Bob Beaty, owner of Beaty American, an architectural salvage shop in Old City, who she refers to as “the grandfather of salvage in Philadelphia.” As we navigate around piles of marble and brownstone in one of the storage yards Beaty shares, I ask how long he’s been in the salvage game. “Forever. Beginning of time.” And it’s true, further questioning reveals that his history really does show a predilection for reuse in all of its forms. Born and raised in West Philly, Beaty spent time in California, where he ran a landfill and then worked in the compost industry.

Beaty believes that it should be the City’s responsibility to enact an ordinance requiring the deconstruction and reuse of building materials. And though it is a stretch to imagine Philadelphia, a city that pales in comparison to other major cities when it comes to protecting its architectural heritage, other cities are giving it a try. In Portland, Oregon, a deconstruction ordinance mandates that any building built before 1916, or any building that is historically designated, must be manually disassembled so that materials may be salvaged and reused. Taking into account the embodied energy that existing buildings represent, mandated deconstruction and reuse starts to make the far too overlooked connection between preservation of the built environment and environmental sustainability. Not only are we losing embodied energy when we demolish existing buildings, we are often losing valuable, quality materials and products of craftsmanship that may not even exist anymore. This last point is amplified in Philadelphia, a city that enjoyed sustained wealth and investment throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Kaitlin Pomerantz and Bob Beaty examine salvaged stoops in storage yard that Beaty shares with Philadelphia Salvage. | Photo: Starr Herr-Cardillo

As someone who has always worked in the world of reuse in one capacity or another, Beaty sees preservation and reuse of buildings and sustainability as one and the same. “Preservation, sustainability, I think they’re all interrelated.” For Beaty, the obligation to reuse and repurpose older buildings and materials comes from a place of moral obligation to the planet. “If someone was to grade humanity for the way we’ve taken care of the planet, it’d be an ‘F’.”

It is hard to disagree. Beaty flips through his phone to show me a picture of the three tons of sculpted brownstone that he salvaged from the New Light Beulah Baptist Church at 17th and Bainbridge that was recently demolished to make way for condominiums. “Where is something like that likely to end up?” I ask. Beaty doesn’t even pause to think about it before he replies, “Oh you know, probably in somebody’s garden.”

Monument Lab opens on September 16. See their website for more information HERE.

For all things stoop-related, follow Kaitlin Pomerantz’s project on Instagram: @stoop_phenomena

About the author

Starr Herr-Cardillo was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona and is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania's historic preservation program. She was drawn to the field by a deep affinity for adobe and vernacular architecture. She is gradually being won over by Philadelphia's overwhelming historic building stock and cloudier climate.



17 Comments


  1. The stoops on the first two houses my parents lived in were Marble. People all along the small block we lived on took pride in how clean and shiny their stoops were. The stoops were scrubbed with hard bristled brushes and really did shine. The block looked so clean and beautiful when they were done. Thank you Starr for this wonderful article.

  2. Why don’t we convince developers to buy the old marble stoops and incorporate them in new built construction here in Philadelphia? That way, the old will survive on with the new.

  3. In a philly.com series last summer about “stoop culture” or something like that, lots of commenters and a few people they interviewed made the point that the word “stoop” isn’t really native to this city and they are always referred to as “front steps.” I hear the latter term used by South Philly old timers. Is it even a word here or just derived from non-natives who watched Do the Right Thing and other movies glorifying New York City urban culture (that Dutch origin would give a clue to where it comes from…)? If not, shouldn’t we use the right term if we want to honor Philadelphia history?

    • Starr Herr-Cardillo

      Hmm…it’s interesting to see the response to the word “stoop.” I was using it coming from a background in preservation/architectural history and the architectural term for that feature is stoop, but this is an interesting point about different regional vernaculars! I wonder if it differs in various neighborhoods in Philly, too.

      • Hi Starr,
        I also loved the article.I was born in Philly.People always referred to them as steps in the Fishtown area.I have heard stoop in the new vernacular.I remember scrubbing the marble at my parents home.I no longer live in Philly .I live in the small town of Mt Holly NJ I walk a lot and on my route,street and pavement work wa being done in the entire neighborhood. I noticed one marble slab which was probably used at the curb to exit carriages in the day,had disappeared. there is even a little foundation where it sat! You never know!Thanks for your coverage on the topic!

    • Totally agree. Front steps all the way. I’m young and even grew up outside the city, but I still knew as I was reading that ‘stoop’ was not the word in our area.

  4. Great article and I am glad this work is being done. I wish there was a discussion on the terminology of Stoop vs Steps (NYC vs Philly vernacular). What does the artist think of the terms, and how does she distinguish them in this context?

    • Starr Herr-Cardillo

      Yes, looks like it’s definitely worthy of discussion! Like I said above, I was just using what I know to be the “official” architectural term, but I think the debate is fascinating. Maybe something for the artist to consider in the delivery of her project, if she has not already.

  5. “steps” please. New York says stoop.

    • I’ve lived in many neighborhoods during my 76 years and never heard any Philadelphians call the front steps a “stoop.” Of course, this is a minor point of local lingo.

  6. I see zero connection between this and art. That such efforts gobble up arts funding is heinous indeed.

    • Yeah, I’m not getting it either – but then “conceptual art” leaves me cold and bored.

    • I disagree. Likely this artist doesn’t just see salvaged slabs of stone at the front of an empty lot, rather she sees what they were, and in making a monument, she is isolating a story, a place, a home, and one that includes relatable materials that might otherwise have been swept away. And even if pieced together from a salvage yard, these works call to mind a place that we have lost. Maybe that’s not exactly how the artist sees it and perhaps it is somewhat curatorial, but that’s what it means to me as the viewer. And while this isn’t the same in physical quality as a beautifully carved statue, it is art by the manner of its concept, assembly and presentation, answering the call for a monument that is relatable to so many people who cared for and observed these individual steps and stoops. We may not be seeing the perfect painting of a home, nor its greatest photograph; instead, we have a piece of it, the last lock of its hair. And I think preserving that in such a careful and deliberate way is the creation of a work of art, and, most importantly to the point, a memorial to something at-large that we have all lost.

      • Obviously some people get it. I don’t. I’ve tried since I was in art school in the 19602 and conceptual art was just beginning to become popular. I am glad it has meaning for you!

  7. Many of the new buildings going up in Fishtown are horrible. There are no real stoops to them, or if there are, they face sideways in opposite direction, as if the developer did not want neighbors talking to each other. Many have no stoops at all, or they are situated where the stoops of adjacent buildings are not built together, which would encourage hanging out and talking with neighbors. The house seem to have become very sterile, a place to sleep and eat and bath when you are not working, and very little on the living aspect.

  8. I am 38 and was raised in the Northeast and now live in East Falls. I always heard the term front steps. Also, we used to play “step ball” frequently and it was a lot of fun. I never once heard anyone use the term “stoop ball”

    I heard front steps used consistently. But my Grandmother who would be 102 now used to say stoop. I sort of associate the term stoop with the 19th century houses with two or three marble steps to the front door common in N Philly and S Philly. Perhaps the poured concrete steps of the Northeast were not worthy of being called stoops so I did not hear the term used.

  9. Though we do not really know one another, I feel connected to this artist. While there is no substitute for an extant building, this is an incredible work of memory, keeping a physical feature that was used by so many people in domestic life, and one that has great association to people and cities, and to Philadelphia(ians). After the exhibit, I hope the city will adopt these works and distribute them for installation in various parks throughout our city. A possibly disturbing notion occurred to me, which would be to later remove these works to be staged representatively along the front of a modern building to show exactly where specific homes once stood. With each set of steps there could be a history, telling the tale of a home and/or that of an important, interesting, and/or representative occupant. Another great “woman” artist has spoken (not me)!

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