Besides the Callowhill Cut, another prominent curiosity in the Baldwin Park neighborhood is the granary at 411 North 20th Street. It is just north of the apartment complex named The Granary (capital letters) that was completed in 2014. The granary (lower case) was originally a wooden structure built by the Reading Company as a grain distribution center around the time of the Civil War. Grain would come into Philadelphia from central Pennsylvania farms via rail and be stored in the granary's 72 internal silos until local distribution by horse-drawn carts. The inclined railroad spur leading into the granary building is still visible along the south side of the Callowhill Cut.
The original wooden granary exploded and burned in 1925. The current massive concrete structure was built that same year with the intent of being explosion-resistant. It was one of the first large reinforced concrete buildings using a continuous poured-in-place technique. Each rectangular four-foot wide silo has 15-inch thick reinforced concrete walls. For a three minute video explaining why the fine dust and air inside an enclosed building cause a risk of explosion, see outside link here.
Detail from a photo, looking northwest and taken around 1920, showing the wooden granary to the right of the cathedral. Poking out from behind the granary and to its right is the white marble Preston Retreat, a maternity hospital at the site of the current City View condominiums.
Granary crew in 1890 with mules and wagon at the ready
(image credit Library Company of Philadelphia)
Two things may seem evident from the granary: it is oddly placed in an urban environment and that its hulking cement frame appears indestructible. There was another granary nine blocks from ours, at 29th and Pennsylvania Avenue from the 1890s to the 1930s. This was the grain elevator for the Louis Bergdoll Brewery. The grain elevator was razed in the 1930s after the brewery failed to recover from Prohibition, but the brewery still survives as the Brewery Condominium complexes.
Bergdoll brewery granary in 1898.
The pedestrian bridge is still there, but the granary is not.
Detail from Hexamer map from 1892 showing Bergdoll brewery structures. Full map here.
Our granary stands out now only because it is the last of the Philadelphia granaries. The Tidewater Grain Company bought up many granaries in Philadelphia, including ours which was purchased from The Reading Company in 1945. The Pennsylvania Railroad also had granaries which were purchased by Tidewater. On March 28, 1956, the Tidewater granary at 31st and Market exploded, killing four. And in 2007, the Tidewater granary at Girard Point in South Philly went under the wrecking ball (after a partial implosion as seen in this three-minute video here). Granaries were common in the city, and not indestructible.
Aftermath of the 1956 granary explosion near 31st and Market.
(Photo credit George D. McDowell, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin)
For nice outside article see here.
The Girard Point granary, the penultimate granary in Philadelphia, was razed in 2007.
The new granary makes the August 1929 cover! Notice the iron superstructure with "Reading Lines."
The Reading freight depot is in the front left, and Bement and Miles Machine Works is in the front right. There appears to be a trolley going over the 20th Street bridge. The new Elverson Building (the Inquirer building) is in the distance.
Receipt from our granary while still owned by the Reading Company.
Note storage capacity: 300,000 bushels!
Also note the fine print: "Loss by burning, fire, or inherent explosion at owner's risk."
Pocket grain price calculator from prior to 1956. One side shows the 30th and Market Street granary that exploded in 1956 (left) and the other shows our granary on 20th (right).
The west side of the Tidewater granary in 1960, just east of the brand new police district headquarters completed in 1960 on what is now the Target parking lot.
In 1970 the Tidewater Grain Company sold the granary to the Baltimore Warehouse Company. By 1970 the building was no longer functioning as a grain storage facility.
In 1974, after the granary had hosted a failed restaurant (called The Granary), Sonny Hopson and Perri Johnson, two local DJ's, leased the granary and turned it into The International Astro Disc. There was a kitchen and DJ, and shows at the Astro Disc were broadcast on Channel 29. Disco parties starting at midnight were not popular with the neighbors, nor with the 9th District police headquarters just across 20th Street.
Our Tidewater granary was purchased by interior designer Ken Parker in 1977 for $150,000 including liens. He used the bottom two floors for business office space and the top four stories as living space for himself. The living space offered fantastic views of the city from the rooftop garden, and the building became famous as the site of lavish parties. This reconfiguration was one of the first industrial adaptive reuse projects in Philadelphia and an early federal tax credit design.
Parker converted the former mechanical room into a living room.
(photo credits: Tom Crane)
Other water features included a koi-stocked pond visible through a glass-topped coffee table in the living room above. Peacocks roamed freely around the pond.
The rooftop greenhouse Jacuzzi. Parker had 110 tons of soil carted up to the roof to establish lush greenery.
Parker's apartment atop the granary at night.
The metal industrial equipment seen on the north side of the building on the lower left, was installed in 1952 and was the only exterior modification made to the building since 1925. The rusted equipment was removed in 1987 for safety reasons.
The building was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Buildings in 1981, and on the National Register of Historic Places one year later (for 47-page NRHP nomination form with photos from 1978 see here). Parker sold the granary in 1986 to Granary Associates, who used the building as office space until 2007 when Pearl Properties purchased the granary and the surface parking lot on Callowhill Street. The financial crisis ruined plans to build a 35 story apartment building on the lot. A plan to build a twelve story addition atop the granary was floated but encountered neighborhood opposition due to the height of the proposed building.
Architect rendering of proposed 12 story addition to the granary in 2010.
More on this plan at outside link here.
(credit: Interface Studio Architects)
The next plan, in 2012, was to build a nine story apartment building on Callowhill and an eight story building on the land next to the granary and connect them with a pedestrian bridge, as discussed in an outside article here. The nine story apartment structure was opened in 2014, but the connecting structure has not been built as of yet.
The granary under Pearl Properties was still set up as potential office space, and a lease listing from 2009 shows a fairly plush interior on the bottom and top floors, as shown in these two images.
Views of the office space in the granary according to the lease advertisements from 2009
Granary from the southwest in September 2018. Scaffolding or netting surrounds three sides due to falling stucco, and L&I has posted the warning below
The Granary on the left and the granary, from Baldwin Park, looking west.
The granary had been abandoned for several years again, its stucco facade peeling off in chunks captured by the netting surrounding the building. It is on the National and Philadelphia historic registries and is headed for its 100th birthday. Building permits began appearing on the building in 2018, and as of March 2020 work is progressing well on a conversion to a total of 24 apartments on the upper floors and two floors of retail on the lower floors.
East side of the granary: birth date inside a Reading diamond logo
Building Permit plans submitted 8/21/2019 by Granary Acquisition Partners, LP.
The plan calls for 24 apartments on the upper floors with retail on the lower two floors. The diagram in the lower right shows the layout of the grain bins, which are about four feet in length with 15-inch thick walls. The angles at each intersection are buttressed to give a slightly octagonal cross-section.