Adaptive Reuse Project Honors Kensington’s Industrial Heritage

February 29, 2024 | by Stacia Friedman

The former Peter Woll & Sons Feather Company at 173 Berks Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Philly tag artists have nothing on Peter Woll. His name has been atop a South Kensington factory for over 142 years, beating out local graffiti artist Cornbread by a century. Admittedly, Woll didn’t scale the six-story tower of the industrial building with a can of spray paint. Instead, he commissioned construction of a factory in the late 19th century as corporate headquarters for his family enterprise: Peter Woll & Sons Feather Company. Thanks to Urban Conversions, a ghost sign immortalizing Woll on the building’s western side will continue to be a landmark in the Norris Square neighborhood.

Headquartered in Northern Liberties, Urban Conversions is a real estate development firm specializing in adaptive reuse of historic properties with an eye on preservation. Founded in 2009 by Alon Barzilay, the company is known for ambitious projects including Sanctuary Lofts, a former church in the Graduate Hospital area, Yarn Factory Lofts, an 1884 mill in Manayunk, and The Glassworks, a new construction project in Fishtown completed in 2023.

An advertisement from the early 1900s for Peter Woll & Sons. | Image: Public Domain

When Urban Conversions purchased the former Woll factory at 173 Berks Street in 2020, Its last occupant for over 50 years was the Globe Paper Company. Two years later, reopening as Paper Factory Lofts, it offered 30 market-rate apartments with commercial space on the ground floor with the added advantage of easy access to transportation. The Berks El Station is two blocks away on N. Front St. and there’s a SEPTA bus stop in front of the building. Units include over-sized studios, one and two-bedroom lofts, and multistory penthouse apartments with spiral staircases and views of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

By retaining its original architectural features and signage, The Paper Factory Loft pays tribute to the neighborhood’s former identity as an important manufacturing center which had 126 privately owned textile firms, carpet companies, leather tanneries, slaughter houses, and meat distribution centers. Both Swift and Armour had meat packing plants on American Street. When Woll first opened his factory, there were over 1,000 others in the area, providing employment for 60,000 predominantly Irish, English, Scotch, and German workers who lived nearby. Initially, Woll manufactured “steamed curled hair and bristles” which sounds strange today, but made sense at the time. Tanneries near Woll’s factory produced horse, pig, and goat hair that Woll used to make bristles for brushes and stuffing for mattresses, upholstery, and automobiles. The feather business came later. Business was good and Woll expanded. By 1924, he owned five buildings within three small city blocks including 152 W. Berks Street which was demolished in 2019. In 1939, when he needed more space, Woll moved his business to New Jersey.

This early 20th century photo published by the Public Ledger shows Kensington when it was a manufacturing powerhouse known as the “Workshop of the World.” | Photo: Public Domain

Preservation consultants, Powers & Company, were instrumental in accessing the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program (known as the Historic Tax Credit program). The building was nominated by the Keeping Society of Philadelphia and was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2019. It was subsequently listed on the National Register.

Paper Factory Lofts is a mix of 19th century industrial architecture and contemporary design. High ceilings reveal a maze of HVAC pipes and original wooden beams, contrasting with quartz counter tops, hardwood floors, and contemporary appliances. For example, a large floor-mounted freight scale, previously used for weighing reams of paper, has been reconfigured. While the weighing platform is gone, the large vintage weight indicator remains at eye level as a curious reminder of the building’s former function.

The entrance to Paper Lofts and a living room in one of the renovated units. | Photos courtesy of Jonathan Areana and Powelton Staged Media Group

“The existing brick walls and exposed ceiling beams have a richness that speaks for itself,” said Eric Leighton, partner at CBP Architects in Old City. Leighton credits a bench in the lobby to Jack Larimore, an internationally exhibited sculptor and furniture maker. “Jack fabricated the bench from salvaged timber and gears from another project,” said Leighton, who also calls attention to an old fire door that was salvaged from Globe Paper Company that Larimore cleaned up, applied a new patina, and LED lights to emit a subtle halo at night. “The building no longer has an industrial-size elevator, rather we installed a modern passenger elevator,” said Leighton. However, the original elevator did not go to waste. Parts of it were suspended from the lobby ceiling. Another echo of the past is to be found in the exterior and interior brick arches that frame every window, filling each of the 30 units with light and floor to ceiling views.

As for the exterior, decades of paint were removed from the first floor walls and the brickwork was repaired and repointed. “On the interior, loose paint was removed, but some of it was left behind in the lobby, which adds to the richness of the texture,” he said.

The former factory’s fading ghost sign can still been seen from blocks away. | Photo: Michael Bixler

This was Leighton’s first collaboration with Urban Conversions, but not his last. “They’ve been amazing to work with. After the positive experience we had, we were invited to work on 150 W. Berks Street. It’s currently an empty lot and will be all new construction,” he said.

Wherever Peter Woll is now, he is likely to be amused that people now call his factory their “home” and comforted by the ghost sign bearing his name which refuses to fade away.


About the Author

Stacia Friedman is a Philadelphia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and Los Angeles on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, Broad Street Review, and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history, and vibrant arts scene.

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