Hidden City Philadelphia grew out of a childhood interest in exploring and imagining the possibility of place through exploring old estates, houses, and industrial buildings.
Founder Thaddeus Squire grew up on City Line Avenue, on the border between the former grandeur of Philadelphia’s Overbrook section and the current wealth of its Western suburbs, the Main Line. He spent his youth wandering through the remnants of the city’s industrial past, occasionally committing small acts of vigilante preservation, and wondering what the future might hold for these sites.
Hidden City is about transforming that innate, childlike sense of wonder that we all have into inspiration, ideas, and social action around place, making our urban environment a more vibrant, productive, and desirable place to live, work, and play.
Hidden City was one of the first projects incubated by Peregrine Arts, a nonprofit arts production and consulting company founded in 2005 by Thaddeus. Planning for the festival began in Peregrine’s founding year, in partnership with the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. From 2006 through 2008, Peregrine presented a number of works-in-progress and finished pieces that anticipated and explored the ideas of site-specific, creative-based historic interpretation at the heart of Hidden City.
In 2006, we presented Locus Solus (2006), a music-theatre performance installation by American composer Phil Kline created for the Ryerss Museum & Library, a 19th-century historic site and “cabinet of curiosities” in Northeast Philadelphia. Through musical vignettes based on the collector-protagonist of Raymond Roussel’s infamous 1914 novel Locus Solus, the work provided an otherworldly context for the eccentric collections of Joseph Waln Ryerss and his family.
In 2007, Peregrine commissioned and presented The Order of Things (2007), a sound installation created by British artist Scanner (a.k.a. Robin Rimbaud) for the exhibition hall of The Wagner Free Institute of Science, a 19th-century natural history museum and educational institution that has changed little since its founding in the mid-1800s. The installation explored the history of taxonomy—our deep desire to bring order to the world around us—in celebration of the 300th birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern natural taxonomy.
In that same year, the company commissioned from Ridge Theater a performance installation of composer Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) for Lincoln Hall of the Union League of Philadelphia. The installation explored the history of Philadelphia’s Widener family, who were noted philanthropists, members of the League, and victims of the RMS Titanic disaster in 1912. Finally, in 2007 we presented jazz composer Fred Ho’s live performance and video work All Power to the People!: The Black Panther Suite (1998). A collaboration with artist Paul Chan, the piece was presented at The New Freedom Theater on North Broad Street, Philadelphia’s first African American theatre and a former Black Panther meeting house.
In 2008, Peregrine presented a public work-in-progress of American artist Steve Roden’s nothing but what is therein contained (2008-2009), which was commissioned for Founder’s Hall, Girard College expressly for Hidden City. The final version of the piece was featured in the 2009 festival. The first festival itself took place a year later, May 30 – June 28, 2009 in nine heritage sites around the city, attracting more than 10,000 visitors, extensive press acclaim, and multiple awards.
Following the success of the 2009 festival and a year of assessment and planning, Peregrine Arts changed its name to Hidden City Philadelphia in July 2010. A separate nonprofit entity, CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia, was formed at the same time to continue Peregrine’s management consulting for the arts and heritage fields.
No longer just a project, but an organization, Hidden City affirmed a new mission and vision to advance creative placemaking in Philadelphia through an array of programs, including continuing the festival as a quadrennial. Today, we are dedicated to enhancing the enjoyment of our city and inspiring people to explore our history and imagine new futures for the urban landscape.