Art & Design

Viking Mill In Kensington Shut By L&I; Artists, Makers Out (Second Update)

October 21, 2013 | by Hidden City Staff


Viking Mills, 2026 E Hagert St. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Viking Mills, 2026 E Hagert St. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Note: Article update, 10AM, October 22

Hidden City spoke this morning with one of the building’s owners, David Hirsh, whose family business, Patriot Fiber, has been located there since the early 1950s. “We’ve been working with L&I to resolve the issues,” he said. “We’ve been really cooperative. I think they have some legitimate concerns. Now we’re aggressively addressing them.” Hirsh said that Viking Mill Associates, the LLC that legally owns the building, is financially responsible for remediating violations. He said he is clear on the work that needs to be done to address the majority of the violations. Through lawyers, Hirsh has filed a motion in court to allow a portion of the building to be occupied while repairs are being made. When will the building reopen? “I guess I have the same question,” he said. “I think we have an important art center here.”

Note: This article was updated at 10:40PM, October 21.

Citing “numerous violations” of the city’s building, zoning, electrical and fire codes, the City’s Department of Licenses and Inspections Monday issued a Cease Operations/Stop Work Order at the Viking Mill building in Kensington. The order took effect at 3PM Monday. Dozens of tenants–most of them artists, craftspeople, and makers–have been forced to remove their equipment and exit the building. The atmosphere outside the mill, originally the Arrott’s Steam Power Mills Co., which made cotton and woolen yarn, was somber this afternoon as the large community dispersed.

One of the anchor spaces in the transformation of East Kensington as a new creative hub of the city, the building is home to artist studios, the Little Berlin gallery, a recording studio, a bike works, metal works, guitar pedal fabricator, practice rooms, and other creative practices, all of which were forced to close and at least temporarily unable to make income.

L&I Cease Operations/Stop Work Order | Photo: Peter Woodall

L&I Cease Operations/Stop Work Order | Photo: Peter Woodall

Frustration was mostly aimed at the City, but also at the building’s owner, David Hirsh. “I’m not going to be able to work. Two of my employees will be out of work unless we’re able to find another space,” said Bill Capozzoli, of Capozzoli Metalworks, which makes ornamental pieces for railings and staircases. “I understand that buildings need to be safe. I sympathize with the fire department and the need for safety, but the way they’re closing this–I was under the impression that they’d list violations to take care of. Instead they’re just shutting it down. A lot of the violations would have been taken care of if they’d come in and told us the specific violations. Where are we going to go if this isn’t open? We’re all very invested in the building.”

“I have six employees and nowhere for them to work anymore,” said photographer Brian Kinney of the post-production firm Missing Element. “Right now is our busy season. Whatever queue of work we had is now pushed back until this is hopefully resolved. I found out about the violations months ago, but we didn’t get notification from the building owner that basically the building would be shut down until this morning.”

Hirsh, who took over the building as Viking Mill Associates, LLC in 2007, received notice of numerous fire and electric violations on April 30, 2013. The violations were categorized as “non-hazardous.” In a letter dated October 17, 2013, L&I senior attorney Beverly Penn indicated the building had been inspected October 15, and found to have had significant violations: electrical wiring installed “without permits and by non-licensed contractors” and walls constructed without fire proof materials. The letter noted that welding was being done without permit, a kiln was on premises, and proper systems for the collection of wood shavings were not in place in spaces used for wood working.

A recent small fire on the building’s fifth floor was put out quickly by the sprinkler system.

Donna Hirsh, presumably the wife of David Hirsh, wrote on the Viking Mill Facebook page Monday night that though the date of reopening wasn’t clear, the building’s closure would be temporary. “The issues which have caused the temporary closure are being addressed. We have been addressing the issues from the beginning. Viking Mill was unaware of the closure, given only a few days’ notice,” she wrote. The building, she said, would be open for the remainder of the week so that tenants could remove belongings.

“I’ve done a lot of mural projects out of this building, including the mural on the building,” said muralist and stained glass artist Emilie Ledieu. “As much as I appreciate the affordability of the building, at least one of the landlords was well aware that many of the spaces were not up to code well before the L&I inspections. The landlord had good intentions but we are all paying the price. He really should have hired somebody to really properly manage the place. The tragedy of this is he has the right intentions that we need in this city, but he doesn’t know how to go about it.”

Angel Mosaic, Alex “Psyckoze” Stolypine and Emilie Ledieu, artists, Viking Mill, Kensington | Photo: Ella Curtiss

Hirsh told tenants he has sought a legal injunction against the building shutdown in order to give him time to do the necessary repairs. The case is apparently to be heard tomorrow. As of press time, Hirsh was unavailable to comment.

Soon after Hirsh took over the building, artists and other creative businesses began to move in. In the rough spaces, they built their own walls, and, in exchange for low rent, made their own electrical and other improvements, not always to code. Today, the tenants are caught in a difficult situation where significant physical and code changes must be made–and they’re being required to make them. In an e-mailed letter to tenants obtained by Hidden City, Hirsh said, “We will need the cooperation of tenants who have violations, to re-mediate these violations.”

Indeed, a building like the Viking Mill exists in a substantial gray area, where artists and makers, unable to afford market rates (and not desiring finished space), seek community, cheap rent, and atmosphere. All that is on offer at Viking Mill. According to the building’s website, Viking Mill has endeavored to provide “affordable work space for various kinds of artists and craftspeople,” often leasing raw space with the idea that the tenant would complete necessary upgrades to the space. This sort of ad hoc renovation is typical–and probably necessary–where pioneering creative people are at work. “The space for rent is full of character,” says the website. “The five-story building is a brick and wood beamed, hard-wood floored structure, being historic in construction but current in our lives by providing space in which artists can be creative.”

And yet these kinds of spaces are by definition almost certain to be filled with building code violations. Moreover, City inspectors, motivated by regulatory failures at the Thomas Buck Hosiery building just a block from the Viking Mill, which burned to the ground in April, 2012, and at 22nd and Market Streets in Center City, where a building collapsed in June, killing six people, have increased oversight.

The consequences of this conflict felt very real Monday at Viking Mill. Like other tenants, Matt Gaither, a drum maker, said he’s essentially stuck. “I’ve got thousands of dollars worth of equipment at Viking Mill, and I don’t have the money to move it and nowhere to take it,” he said. “The shutdown was too short notice. I think that almost anyone in here that’s a craftsman without a workspace–it’s really restricted what you can do.”

Viking Mills | Photo: Peter Woodall

Viking Mills | Photo: Peter Woodall

“The neighborhood isn’t going to have these artist spaces anymore, unless you study the art of law. No one’s going to be able to afford this,” said Jesse Beamesderfer, an artist.

In the past decade, as center city priced out young artists and creative businesses, particularly in Old City, Kensington has become a hotbed of creative small businesses and contributed to a serious revitalization, one that brings positive effects (new coffee shops, galleries, restaurants) as well as increases in rent that slowly push artists further away in pursuit of lower rents. As tenants removed their equipment before the building shutdown this afternoon, they discussed where they could go next. In every case, they cited new warehouses and other industrial spaces around Somerset, Tioga, and other locations even farther north with space to lease: and almost at once the cycle begins anew.

Lee Tusman, Peter Woodall, and Nathaniel Popkin contributed reporting to this article.



  1. Andrew says:

    The problem with a wofeully inadequate L&I is that actual processes are utterly unpredictable, making business stupid. They’re not good enough to actually catch any real problems (Salvation Army collapse, Buck Hosiery, the house down the street, etc) but they do succeed in royally screwing those unlucky few to get snagged in their incoherent net (Viking Mill, Thach family on Greenwich St, etc). We as a City should either skip L&I altogether, or have a proper one that actually helps builders, contractors, tenants, investors, homeowners, etc., etc.

    1. David says:

      Andrew, its tough because while I absolutely love the work folks at Viking Mill were doing, and want places like that to continue to thrive, the entire building is a fire trap, and no where near up to code. This decision should be unsurprising to those who’ve spent any amount of time working in the building.

      That said, hopefully they can get it up to code and continue the great work thats been going on there.

      1. A Murder of Crows says:

        Its completely outrageous. I don’t even know where to begin. The key to understanding L & I and the city is to take a step back, and recognize that you are dealing with racketeers. If they aren’t getting their piece of the action, you aren’t going to do anything. Take an abandoned building in one of the most drug infested depressed communities on the East Coast, and re hab it? Did you pay off the Philadelphia politicians? If not, you’re done. And I just love the toadies waiting to jump on the bandwagon, oooo the ‘electric wasn’t up to code’, ‘its a firetrap’, but it has somehow has stood for 150 years without burning down. Funny isn’t it? And of course meanwhile, L & I does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about the scores of crack critter infested abandoned buildings across North Philly. The reason the building across the street was not raided, is because it was rehabbed with a union workforce ( I worked on it) with a huge influx of government money. That money is not available to you. Clarke is on record stating he is not going to have his neighborhood ruined ‘by hipsters on bicycles’. In what universe would a gov’t agency shut down a thriving business community with no notice? I seriously can’t believe people put up with this crap. The only explanation I can come up with is its something in the ‘wudder’.

        1. Henry says:

          L&I is not “getting a piece of the action” by shutting down Viking Mills, theyre getting nothing!
          The building is in fact in violation of lots of building codes, and it is in fact more dangerous than other artists’ buildings in the neighborhood..
          The real fault here lies with building management who should have at least attempted to comply with the building code, but never did, even after repeated warnings that to my knowledge go back YEARS not months.
          Now its on David to see if he can finally get his s*** together…
          Emilie, quoted in the article, has it on the nose…

        2. steveeboy says:

          Hey there, do you have a source for your assertion that Clarke said “he is not going to have his neighborhood ruined ‘by hipsters on bicycles’. ???

          I missed that one and would like to add it to the file for when I call his office.

      2. BoB FaY says:

        Andrew, totally agree with you. L & I is all but a joke, they come in like the gangbusters, and will not even give you the courtesy of what to do to correct a pointed out problem (at least by questions posed to them by actual tenants). Nor will they point you to a set of recognized standards to refer from to educate yourself. I, in anticipation that to me was an inevitable happening (inspections) built everything in my space to code. Granted i am in the building business and have a more than average understanding of such codes, but still am appalled at just how unnecessarily mean (and at times totally wrong) L&I are and have been. Upon initial entering of the building they were not even aware of how the building was zoned prior to inspecting, what kind of competence is that? They have all but said that their own incompetence contributed to the above mentioned deaths and that they are using viking mills to set an example. They have proven to me that they are doing it in an unorganized and haphazard way. The city in general should be embarrassed by this organization, let alone allow it to shut down buildings without any consideration to the vast amount of tenants and people (real people) that are affected. I know of a friend that actually witnessed some of the exact same code infractions within their own offices that they are citing and shutting down viking mills for! Really?! Tell me that underlying this is not politics on levels we are not even aware of. They have publicly proven their incompetence (other city disasters that could have been avoided) and are trying to show a flex of muscles of their self imagined competence. This building has been doing this for years with very little issue. I have known that some tenants were doing things out of code and that it would have to be addressed one day but really David?, fire trap? Did you not read the part about fire started and put out by existing sprinkler system? Fire potential dangers yes, but if you would truly like to see some fire traps in philly, I will gladly give you a tour, and this building (with existing sprinkler system) does not even come close to the atrocities i have seen in this city, and that if L&I were really serious about correcting dangers to human life would actually be looking at.

  2. michael barndt says:

    let this be a lesson. keep it low profile. this building is doomed to become condos anyway. its bones are too nice.

  3. Michael says:

    This place may be able to provide space + legal certainty.

  4. Yoel Wulfhart says:

    I hear of a place that has few spaces available just few blocks away. It is called The Papermill community of artists. Same style building without the violations, also the rent is really cheap.

  5. john fiorella says:

    I have 1 1100 sf ft space available in Germantown 215 669 2993

  6. Chris Golas says:

    If people are looking for an affordable electrician and builder who can do the renovations to the Viking Mills building please let me know.

    1. Rupert says:

      Chris. who’s your guy? or did you get your license?

  7. Michelle Lipson says:

    I’m so sorry for the artists at Viking Mills. I have bench space available in my woodshop @ Cedar and Allegheny. Michelle Lipson 267.808.2160

  8. James says:

    Interesting to see that electrical work was done without proper permits and qualified electricians which in street parlance means not union electricians! L & I did not find anything wrong with the electrical setup but with the fact that union electricians were not used. Even if set up perfectly, not up to code because of the union requirement!

    That is why people leave the city to do business in the suburbs.

  9. Mike says:

    Stop blaming L&I. Viking Mill had a fire recently. The landlord is to blame here, and no one else.

    Having your wiring and electric done by qualified professionals does not mean union, but it certainly means NO former art students who want an extra outlet.

    Try to keep this in mind- L&I are firefighters, and when something goes wrong in this giant, dusty, poorly ventilated, uncontrolled space, their friends and coworkers are the ones who are going to go room to room to make sure people are out.

    They could have shut the place down in April, but gave Hirsh a warning instead. He had 6 months to set things right, and he didn’t.

  10. Anthony says:

    I have 5000 Sq ft of raw space on Frankford and Huntingdon. Call 646-522-7345

  11. Kevin Just Kevin says:

    “, and, in exchange for low rent, made their own electrical and other improvements, not always to code.”

    This is such an unrelentingly bad idea that I can’t believe that anyone would argue that it’s politics.

  12. Bill says:

    Though this problem is causing me a good deal of distress and I was also aware of the code violations I will come to Dave’s defense a bit. This building is more than 100 years old and was left in disrepair before Dave became owner and in charge, from that point on and still the building needs a tremendous amount of work. I am personally aware that he and his partner have put PILES of money into the building with permits and plans to invest more and in the scope many of the offending issues were to be addressed. Was it moving fast enough? No. The really big problem was with letting tenants be in charge of their own fit-out. Bad news. Both the tenants and the management are responsible for not getting permits and not doing work to code. As this unfolds I am seeing stuff that is crazy. (I will be working on some of the compliance issues) Obviously many hazards and much of the responsibility for those hazards fall on the tenants, myself included. As far as I know most of the core electric passed, the sprinklers and alarm system just need a bit of modification. The big question is will all of the floors be complete gut outs or will the city accept an engineer report to determine if parting walls are fire block and if they are not can they be replaced. If L&I wont let us move forward with existing parting walls, well, then it will be a big giant gut out in Building 2. When finished the insides will all be fit out to code with fire block walls, and steel fire rated doors that have panic bars. Each space will have brand new electric, and when it reopens my guess is good bye beautiful skyline view with cheap rent. It will be much more desirable. As far as anyone actually believing this building was as bad of a fire hazard as “they” claim consider this. The initial investigation here came about as the result of a fire. The fire suppression system worked. no one was hurt, and beyond the space that was on fire was no damage. Not an excuse BUT there are a LOT of other buildings like this, in far worse shape, with far worse fire code violations that do not even have a modern sprinkler system.

  13. Trisha says:

    Well done – you have now put more artists’ spaces on the L & I radar. I hope they aren’t on some mission to find and close more warehouse spaces…Good luck everyone, keep your fingers crossed!

  14. Lee says:

    “L & I is all but a joke, they come in like the gangbusters, and will not even give you the courtesy of what to do to correct a pointed out problem”

    Oh BobFay, will you and the rest of the David Hirsch stans stop talking out your asses and learn the facts? As Mike said, L&I was in there last spring and gave David Hirsch ample time to finish the repairs that needed to happen. But he chose not to spend any more of his money to bring the building up to code.

    Here is the L&I report:

    2019 Boston is the official address of Viking Mills.

    See the violation date, April 29th? Yeah, it’s now October and most of the repairs have not been fixed. That’s not L&I’s fault.

  15. Soldat says:

    The artists want to pay less money for their space so they go to a less finished mill that is not up to code. Now we have artists all mad at the landlord because the space is not safe (partly because of things they did). I cannot wait for the bitching when the repairs are done to get it up to code and the rents all go up.

    Also, L&I is a huge joke in this city. There are 100 abandoned buildings I can just walk in and out of at will every day in this city and thousands more that are dangerous, boarded, and crumbling, let little is done. Why not? Politics and money. No money is chasing down an absentee landlord whose building facade is falling into the street or whose wood framed building is open to all who want to walk in.

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