Walking past 219 W. Rittenhouse Street in Germantown, you wouldn’t know that the white brick building with a corrugated metal door contains one of the largest recording studios with a sound stage in Philadelphia. James Hamilton and his wife Susan Deutsch, who have lived on the block for over 30 years, did not know it eventually would either. To them, the building was merely the old auto garage up the street. Originally built in 1925 by Chrysler as a used car dealership and auto repair shop, the 15,000 square foot building had changed hands several times and was known as Dan’s Car Care when Hamilton and Deutsch first considered its potential for adaptive reuse seven years ago.
Hamilton, a record producer, sound engineer and percussionist who performs with Ensemble Novo, had outgrown his home recording studio. “Susan and I were looking at properties all over the city. Nothing worked out,” he said. Hamilton thought he had found the ideal space above a neighborhood fabric shop. “It was a big space that had been a recording studio. It was perfect,” said Hamilton. But, once again, the deal fell through.
Hamilton has long collaborated with Brazilian musicians. He was in Rio de Janeiro and feeling despondent about not securing a new recording studio in Philadelphia when he had a dream. “I saw this space,” he said, sitting now under the cathedral-style ceiling of Rittenhouse SoundWorks. “But I didn’t know where it was.”
A few days later, back in Philly, a chance conversation with a neighbor led Hamilton and Deutsch to viewing the auto garage in a new light. “As soon as the realtor showed us the property, I recognized it from my dream,” he said.
However, the condition of the property proved to be more nightmare than dream. The iron furnace heating system was kaput. There was no air conditioning. When the dropped ceiling was removed, decades of debris fell to the floor. Fortunately, there were no hydraulic lifts left over from the auto garage, so Hamilton didn’t have to deal with dangerous industrial waste.
His determined demolition crew, comprised of highly skilled neighbors, got to work without architectural plans or renderings. Hamilton supervised every detail. He and his crew uncovered the high wooden ceiling, removed brickwork from a large round window, added a skylight, blasted decades of dark paint off of brick walls, and raised the original hardwood floors. Reclaimed pine salvaged from Sedgewick Theater was used to construct restrooms, and a walnut tree that had fallen in a nearby park was transformed into a sculptural vanity top.
Hamilton broke the first floor into eight rooms, including Studio B, an intimate recording and mixing room with a vocal booth and custom-designed control room for artists who do not require a larger space. There’s also a kitchen containing a juke box from a bar in South Philly and a music library offering thousands of vintage vinyl albums as a resource for record label executives, musicians, and students. In a long, narrow room Hamilton stores his collection of hundreds of percussion instruments. The first floor also contains MHamiltonVisuals, a photography studio run by Hamilton’s son, Matthew, and one of the largest sound stages in the city, Rittenhouse FilmWorks, a full service photography, film, and video production facility that has attracted clients from Los Angeles, New York, London, and Germany. Cinematographers Will Dejessa and Gino Varisano own Rittenhouse FilmWorks in partnership with Hamilton and Deutsch.
The second floor features Studio A, a 64-by-72-foot dynamic performance space that is large enough to accommodate a full orchestra. The room can seat up to 100 people. Hamilton fine-tuned the acoustics, adding luan mahogany plywood acoustic half-rounds along one wall and Helmholtz resonators on another. The result is a perfect environment for recording and performing. Three of Studio A’s walls are brick which, along with the vaulted wooden ceiling, creates a great surface for orchestral recording. “This building wanted to be a recording studio, but no one knew it,” said Hamilton.
Studio A’s recording studio features vintage microphones and equipment from Berry Gordy’s Motown studio. In 2016, the first release on Hamilton’s Tension Rod Music label was The Pandeiro Repique Duo from Rio. Rittenhouse SoundWorks maintains a global focus, recording such diverse artists as The Sun Ra Arkestra, The Partch Ensemble, Greg Osby, Joe Lovano, and The Prism Saxophone Quartet.
Once a month, Rittenhouse SoundWorks opens its door to the community, presenting musicians’ gatherings and album release parties featuring an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, experimental, and international music. Recent performers include vibraphonist Tony Miceli, vocalist Paul Jost, bassist Kevin McConnel, drummer Doug Hirlinger, and saxophonist Ken Ulansey. At a typical gathering, four acts perform for a suggested donation of $10. The majority of attendees are local musicians. The venue also presents percussion workshops like The Philadelphia Rhythm Festival, which featured percussionist, composer, and vocalist Glen Velez, tap dancer and choreographer Max Pollok, and choreographer, percussionist, and director Jason Samuels Smith.
A Kensington native, Hamilton acquired a sentimental keepsake from his old neighborhood for Rittenhouse SoundWorks–a wooden pew from the former Ascension of Our Lord Church which his family attended. “I grew up in my father’s Kensington dance studio,” Hamilton said. “That’s where I learned to tap dance and how to speak rhythm.”
These days, Hamilton bangs the drum loudly for Germantown, citing its rich history, proximity to Fairmont Park, and abundance of talented musicians, visual artists, writers, and dancers. “This neighborhood played a major role in the industrialization of the nation. The first paper mill in the nation was founded at the end of our street by William Rittenhouse in Wissahickon Creek. It provided the paper on which the Declaration of Independence was written,” said Hamilton. His enthusiasm has prompted fellow musicians to relocate to Germantown from other parts of the city and country.
Signs of conspicuous reinvestment abound, from the contemporary hair salon under construction across the street to the recently opened Ultimo Coffee shop on the corner. However, at 219 West Rittenhouse Street there is no signage or exterior alteration on the garage to indicate that anything has changed since Chrysler first opened its doors almost 100 years ago. Except, these days, the corrugated metal door isn’t lifting for brake jobs, but for film crews and bands. “This is the way people in the music and film industry like it. Low key. Private,” said Hamilton, whose plans for the exterior do not go beyond a fresh coat of paint and, just maybe, a door bell.