Marked Potential: Cunningham Piano Company

August 18, 2016 | by Shila Scarlet Griffith, LEED AP


The Cunningham Piano Company building still sits empty on 13th and Chestnut Streets despite a real estate surge east of Broad Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Cunningham Piano Building – Marked as a Design and Production Textile Studio

The Cunningham Piano Company building at 1312-14 Chestnut Street has a slender footprint just under 4,000 square feet. Proportionally, the building’s upright posture stands headstrong among its surrounding peers with 15 elegant stories that yield 58,000 square feet of unused, skyward real estate. This thin slice of Center City once served as the administrative and sales headquarters for the Cunningham Piano Company, established in the late 19th century by P.J. Cunningham. It was built in 1924 and designed by architect Andrew J. Sauer for $2 million dollars. Beautiful details on the building once included CUNNINGHAM as a brass inlay at the street entrance with the text MCMXXIII as bookends. Cunningham’s name still flanks the building’s long party walls along with a cluster of ghost signs from past tenants.

The company is still based in Philadelphia and currently occupies two buildings—the Cunningham showroom on Germantown Avenue and an adjacent workshop at East Coulter Street. The company’s former headquarters on Chestnut Street has been empty and ignored by it current owners, the Church of Scientology, since purchasing it from developer Tony Goldman in 2007 after plans to renovate the Chestnut Street property for condominiums never came to fruition. The building remains vacant even at the ground level retail space despite a growing real estate surge from Market to Walnut Streets east of Broad Street.

A nod to Philadelphia’s often underrepresented industrial heritage felt appropriate while thinking about a possible reuse of this space. Textile manufacturing was done well outside of the retail front lines of Center City in industrial enclaves like Old City, Kensington, and along the Schuylkill River in Roxborough. Production declined and large-scale textile manufacturing gradually moved overseas in the decades following World War II. Most factories and workshops were closed by the late 1970s. Some industrial sites have been repurposed for commercial use and a growing few for applaudable residential reuse. Others have been set on fire and reduced to ash, demolished for new construction, or continue to languish in ruins through neglect and abandonment, further eroding a diminishing stock of built landmarks that speak for this important, undervalued era in the city’s history.

| Photo: Peter Woodall

Cunningham’s name and ghost signs still grace the building’s party walls. | Photo: Peter Woodall

For this installment of Marked Potential, the Cunningham Piano Building was reimagined as the headquarters of a niche textile studio that provides design development and production services for individuals and small businesses that specialize in high-end home goods like bedding, blankets, window treatment for lofts, carrying bags, and a host of other fashionable fabric products. Clients will approach the firm with unique ideas for small runs of their product line, seeking guidance through the development and manufacturing phase. Both design and production will take place in-house, allowing workflow issues to be quickly resolved and provide a more collaborative workplace atmosphere. Fabrics used will be purchased domestically and stored onsite when a project goes into production. Custom fabric designs would also be printed in the United States and shipped to this facility.

Talent will be locally sourced through a robust, paid internship program with post-graduation employment opportunities for students of textile and fiber study programs at Philadelphia University, Moore College of Art and Design, Tyler School of Art, and the University of the Arts.

Studio and Production Floor Layout

Presented is what two typical floor plans will look like for the building’s upper 14 stories. The ground floor will be leased to a retail tenant unrelated to the textile studio.

One of our priorities was to design a sustainable and labor-positive work environment that promotes the physical, social, and economic welfare for all employees, placing special emphasis on those working on the production floor.

The north end of the building features large windows that overlook Chestnut Street and face the Wanamaker Building across the way. Preexisting fenestration allows natural light to flood the area dedicated to cutting and sewing, easing strain on the eyes and promoting mental well being, while also boosting productivity. A LEED retrofit would be ideal, but for now daylight sensors will be located throughout each floor to conserve energy.

Three large tables will line the long side of the room for cutting fabric with the use of patterns. The tables will be height-adjustable and employ anti-fatigue mats. Behind the tables on the east wall will be storage for scissors, steel rulers, and other tools of the trade.

/Users/shilagriffith/Google Drive/SG23 Design/Hidden City - Current/CAD/Cunningham Building.dwg

1. Sewing Area | 2. Cutting Area | 3. Digital Design | 4. Fire Stair | 5. Freight Elevator | 6. Passenger Elevator | 7. Main Stair | 8. Unisex Restroom

In front of the cutting tables will be sewing stations fitted with ergonomic seating. There will be a variety of different machine types to match the density and structure of the fabric’s material as well as the varying sewing techniques being used for a particular project. Storage for fabric is found closer to the west wall, an area that will also feature a small lounge area. Resilient cork will be used for the flooring throughout the production space for shock absorption and long periods of standing at the cutting tables.

There is a floor-to-ceiling dividing wall between the production area and design development. The wall will be solid—up to four feet where glass will meet and stretch all the way to the ceiling, a bit over ten feet according to the original architectural drawings. This will allow the space to remain visually open and avoid the blockage of any natural light from the northern or southern ends of the building. A sound-proofing partition door will be installed in case the sound of the sewing machines gets too distracting for administrative operations.

The design team will interface directly with clients, and will develop fabric patterns, determine the finished textile structure, order fabric, and assign individual projects to production. Marketing and administrative staff will be positioned throughout the building. Each workstation will have a computer, dual monitors, and storage.

A small meeting area will be at the southern end of the building with file storage on the wall between the development department’s offices and the fire stairs, which will be accessible through a balcony that has a fire-rated enclosure. All of the stairs and elevator locations will remain unchanged from the original floor plans. The only space we enlarged was the restrooms so that it would be ADA accessible.

/Users/shilagriffith/Google Drive/SG23 Design/Hidden City - Current/CAD/Cunningham Building.dwg

1. Sewing Area | 2. Additional Fabric Storage & Cutting Area | 3. Digital Design | 4. Conference Room | 5. Fire Stair | 6. Freight Elevator | 7. Passenger Elevator | 8. Main Stair | 9. Unisex Restroom

Ideally, the entire floor will eventually operate as one all-encompassing department. From project-to-project, designers may elect to switch between development and production, allowing employees to have a more holistic understanding of all aspects of creating a product for a client. Further, interchangeable assignments would encourage different physical working conditions as opposed to either sitting or standing for the majority of the day, which often results in chronic injuries and illness.

On a typical meeting floor the north end of the building will still be dedicated to production, however, there would be fewer cutting tables and more fabric storage in exchange. Shelving built in-between the structural columns at the east and west walls will also be used for storage.

The development area here will be bit smaller—a printing and lateral file storage station is placed under a large work surface. Here employees can print sample textile pattern designs or review digitized patterns.

A large conference room will be at the south end of the building for presentations to clients. Three of the walls, including an exterior wall, would be glazed glass to take advantage of natural daylight. Mechanized blackout shades will darken the room when needed to accommodate presentations.


About the Author

Shila Scarlet Griffith, LEED AP Shila is an NCIDQ certified and LEED accredited interior designer that also practices interior architecture. She holds both a bachelor’s degree in interior design and master’s degree in sustainable design from Philadelphia University. In 2012, Shila started SG23, a small studio that offers design services spanning interior design, graphic design and website design and development. She also teaches a design studio in the continuing education program at Moore College of Art and Design.


  1. Lisa says:

    I worked across the street from this building for years, and was always sad that it was allowed to decay like that. The new proposal sounds like a great use of the space for the local community, while honoring the tradition of Philly manufacturing. Really exciting stuff.

  2. S D says:

    I don’t understand the point of “reimagining” buildings. It seems to me that a building built for musical purposes should remain so, and used for teaching studios, music stores, as we have no building housing such in Center City.

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