Art & Design

Germantown ArtHaus Paints a Bright Future for a Local Black Landmark

June 2, 2023 | by Keshler Thibert

Work is underway to transform an old printing shop at 6228 Germantown Avenue into Germantown ArtHaus, a community-centric art hub and cafe. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Keisha Whatley’s excitement over her current project, Germantown ArtHaus, is clear. As we toured the Swain Building at 6228 Germantown Avenue she shared her multilayered vision for the property. Whatley hopes it will one day be filled with a café, a gallery, artists’ studios, and a hub for young artists to connect and develop a community. Old newspapers, an antique typewriter, a well-used printing press, and piles of dust and rubble highlight an existing legacy that she is working on continuing inside the historic building.

While her story began with a business plan written for the Artists Bank in 2009, the history of the building dates back to its completion as a single-family home in 1865. Alterations made circa 1890 indicate that the building was converted for commercial use. Around 1915, Robert W. Shueling opened Washington Lane Pharmacy there. While using the downstairs as a store front, the upstairs became a living space until about 1929. The space continued to be used for mixed-use over the next 50 years. In 1979, the building housed its most well-known local residents, William Swain and Ena Veronica Lindner Swain, who established the Swain Accounting and Print Shop.

A ghost sign still hangs on the exterior of  the Swain Building. | Photo: Michael Bixler

As Black Americans and pillars of the local community, the Swains made inroads independently and together. William was the first Black printer to be given the union imprimatur. He  earned the “Union Bug” badge given to exceptional graphic artists and offset printers from the Philadelphia Printers Union.

For her part, Ena became the first Black bookkeeper and accountant for the W.C. Schmidt & Sons Inc. brewery company. Deciding to quit to tend to her family, Ena made a life transition to take on new roles in addition to being a mother. She became an activist and member of the Mallery Recreation Center Advisory Council. She helped organize protests in the early 1970s demanding Mayor Frank Rizzo to create more recreational options for children in Germantown.

As a historian, Edna was the chair of the education committee to the Johnson House Historical Society. As an author, she wrote a book, The Evolution of Abolitionism in Germantown and Its Environs, that published in 2018.

Continuing a Legacy

Keisha Whatley’s ideas for ArtHaus have been incubating since 2009. She decided to make her vision a reality in 2020. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Whatley’s desire to do more for the community came from her grandmother, Maxine, who gave her the inspiration to open Germantown ArtHaus–the name a nod to the groundbreaking Bauhaus art and design movement founded in early 20th century Germany. After 2009, work on her business plan was put on hold until 2018. In the meantime, she ran her own art and design company, Custom Arts Studio, as well as with young artists at Our House Cultural Center at 6380 Germantown Avenue. Whatley began revisiting her initial business idea after she realized that this was the new direction she needed in her life. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down and shocked the world in 2020, the momentous event served as the final push to move forward with her plans.

An old printing press and a collection of Germantown newspaper issues produced on the machine are still present in the Swain Building.  | Photos: Michael Bixler

The obstacle of finding a space presented itself next. Working through realtor Jania Daniels, she learned of the Swain House and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC). Whatley connected with Dr. Valerie Eva Swain, the building’s owner and daughter of William and Ena. Swain offered to come down on the price after learning that the space was going to be used for artists. The issue of procuring a loan for the mortgage was the final obstacle. The PIDC specializes in community projects like Germantown ArtHaus, so the connection was a perfect fit. “When Ms. Whatley came to us seeking financing to expand her business into a retail storefront, PIDC was proud to support Germantown ArtHaus Project throughout the application process,” said Heather Hanowitz, PIDC’s vice president and senior loan officer for business lending. “It resulted in us providing a commercial mortgage loan that will enable her to restore the 20th century Victorian property and create affordable artist studio spaces for the surrounding community. It was a win-win for everyone involved, as the project aligns with PIDC’s mission of spurring investment, supporting business growth, and fostering developments that create jobs, revitalize neighborhoods, and drive inclusive growth to every corner of Philadelphia,” she explained.

Building a Community

Another ghost sign remains at 6228 Germantown Avenue. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Now, with mostly everything in place, construction has begun. Whatley, referencing Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books at 5445 Germantown Avenue as another source of inspiration, said the main floor will feature a café, a local art gallery, and live music performances. This will extend onto the side yard over the warmer months with evening art programming and other entertainment.

The second floor will offer three individual artist studios for lease, while the third floor will have an Airbnb-type studio apartment with a rooftop deck available for rent. The lower level will be divided into spaces for an office and a commercial tenant.

Rendering of Keisha Whatley’s Juneteenth mural. | Image courtesy of Germantown ArtHaus

The sides of the building will have murals that reflect the community, including signed handprints and bricks engraved with the names of members who made a donation. One mural currently in the works will honor Juneteenth, the first of its kind in Philadelphia.

The official opening of the Germantown ArtHaus is yet to be determined. Whatley continues to explore opportunities for additional funding and support for supplies and labor. Tiered monthly memberships, corporate sponsorships, and donation options are available on the Germantown ArtHaus website. Tickets to monthly art and education programs in the outdoor spaces can be purchased as well.

Join Germantown ArtHaus for an official unveiling and celebration of Philadelphia’s first Juneteenth mural on Saturday, June 17 at 2:00pm. See event details and register here:


About the Author

Keshler Thibert is a voracious reader, book collector, tour guide, and current member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, but has also lived in Atlanta, GA, Santiago de Chile, Madrid, Patras, Greece, and Adelaide, South Australia. Thibert has an interest in social sciences, language, and local history. Read more of his work on Substack.

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