Future tenants of Pyramid Lofts in Brewerytown may find graffiti on their walls. The Pyramid Electric Supply Company building at 3101 Glenwood Avenue has spent the last 17 years as a sanctum of street art since it was vacated in 2000. When real estate development firm MM Partners purchased the property in June 2016, the owners committed to integrate both eras of the building’s history into renovations, keeping both the original, industrial exterior and the street art within as focal points of the overall redesign.
For years, graffiti artists like Texas, Gane, and Dirt Worship covered the abandoned warehouse in a tapestry of one-off tags and larger, more elaborate pieces. David Glassner, a project manager at MMP, says that entire makeshift art studios were in the basement when MMP first moved in, fitting now that sections of the property will be converted into live-work units for artists and creative businesses.
Philadelphia commercial architect Leroy B. Rothschild designed the building for Harry C. Kahn and Son, who used it as a warehouse for their Center City furniture company beginning in 1922. The building changed hands a number of times until Pyramid Electric Supply Company purchased the warehouse and set up operations there in 1967. When the warehouse was finally vacated around 2000, the large, empty space was bound to attract graffiti. “It was the ultimate blank canvas,” says Glassner.
MMP is redeveloping Pyramid Electric with an attention to its original form by preserving the old warehouse’s unique triangular shape and installing new casement windows consistent with the original fenestration. Its location above the rail line, once convenient for warehouse operations, will now offer tenants views of Fairmount Park to the west and the Center City skyline to the east.
While exterior renovations will reflect Pyramid Electric’s industrial past, the interior will preserve its significance to the underground art world. Many pieces inside the building will remain and become integrated into the decor of hallways, the lobby, and roughly one-third of the apartment units.
Caroline Caldwell (aka Dirt Worship), a Brooklyn-based artist who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, says she has a lot of fond memories of learning how to paint inside of the abandoned warehouse. One of her favorite pieces, a snake battling a rat that she calls, Me vs. Student Loans, will now serve as urbex-inspired decoration on someone’s bedroom wall.
“On the one hand, it’s flattering that someone wants to preserve my art. That building is a part of my personal history as an artist. It makes me feel like I am a part of the building’s history too,” says Caldwell. “On the other hand, it’s a history that I lose access to as it transforms from an abandoned art playground into luxury condos.”
While Caldwell is excited to see her piece live on, she believes that these sorts of developments tend to be bittersweet for creators like herself. “It’s a system that places value on art, but not the artist,” she says.
Given the illicit nature of street art, it has been difficult for MMP to get in touch with all of the artists whose work will be kept intact or even know who they are. “The alien head, I have a feeling I know who it is,” says MMP founding partner David Waxman, referring to piece painted on exposed brick on the wall of one future unit. “There’s a studio on Fairmount Avenue and I’m hoping I can talk to the owner and he doesn’t think I’m narcing him out, because he has stuff in the window that looks very similar.”
“I’m trying to find Texas and Gane and get in touch with them,” says MMP founding partner Aaron Smith about the two high profile artists who recently tagged the Schuylkill Expressway.
The line between cultural appropriation and exploitation is a thin one. Raw expressions of street art being used, for free, as a selling point for high-end residential units that will lease from $975 to $2,000 a month is cool in theory, but could be viewed as underhanded in practice. However, MMP has worked with artists in the past, commissioning work from MadC and Greg Lamarche on public walls in Brewerytown. Waxman and Smith hope to be able to work something out with the artists whose graffiti they plan on preserving inside Pyramid Electric. “We want the artists to feel like they’re part of the process and not being taken advantage of,” says Waxman. Smith adds that they may commission entirely new pieces for the loft building, but no decision has been made. So far, no compensation has been given to artists whose pieces will remain.
MMP has already begun leasing units and will officially open Pyramid Lofts this summer. The completion the apartment conversion will further anchor the redevelopment happening in Brewerytown, many sections of which were blighted until recently and have undergone a rapid demographic transition since around 2005. Glassner says their conversion of the warehouse exemplifies MMP’s ongoing work in the Brewerytown neighborhood. “We hope to add to the community, and fit into the community, by giving back and building structures that fit in.”