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.