The Granary

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 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. Trainloads of grain would come up the ramp and unload into subgrade vaults. The grain would then be elevated into the silos by a belt-driven scoop system. When grain was offloaded from the granary, carts would pull under the appropriate silo.

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 slip form technique. In this method of construction, a four-foot-tall form is fitted around the foundation on all four sides. Concrete is poured into the form and rebar is added from above. The form is jacked up continuously at a rate of a few inches per hour, so that the concrete at the bottom is hard enough to resist compression free of the form. There are no joints on the building from individual forms.

 

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

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Photo looking over the construction at Catholic Girls High School (now Hallahan) in 1911.

The water tanks are atop the Bement Industrial Works at 20th and Callowhill Streets.

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.

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Granary crew in 1890 with mules and wagon at the ready

(image credit Library Company of Philadelphia here).

Are those the two owners in the doorway? See here.

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. 

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Bergdoll brewery granary in 1898.

The pedestrian bridge is still there, but the granary is not.

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Detail from Hexamer map from 1892 showing Bergdoll brewery structures. Full map here.

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Portion of 1917 Sanborn fire insurance map showing our granary built much as the Bergdoll granary pictured above: wood framing atop first floor brick, rising 90 feet. The first floor brickwork can be seen in the photo with the mules above.

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.

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Portion of 1875 map showing the location of our neighborhood granary. Note the turntable in the upper left.

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Sketch from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in 1888 showing the granary on the right and locomotives entering the turntable at 20th Street on the left. This view is looking east down Pennsylvania Avenue ten years before the Callowhill Cut.

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The old granary met its end on March 11, 1924, as this image from The Philadelphia Inquirer shows.

Most of the burning structure telescoped into itself, throwing up embers that slightly injured 40 firemen. The High Pressure Fire Service hydrants only extended as far west as 16th Street, so the thin streams of water could not save the building. The fire was apparently started by embers from a passing locomotive.

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From the 1860s to the present, the tall granary is a constant presence in old images of the neighborhood. In this aerial photo from August 1925, the bright white granary base is barely detectable one block north of the library. The date stone on the granary is 1925 and was probably applied to the building around the time of this photo.

(Photo credit Free Library of Philadelphia, Aero Service aerial photos v2 print #5164)

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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.

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Some shots of the interior from the April 1926 edition of the Reading Railroad Magazine

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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."

The sketch shows the tracks leading up to the two lower level unloading docks.

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Photo from 1905 showing the Flagg building on the right, the siding underneath the building (still there today under the Tivoli Condominiums), and the track ramp up to the wooden granary building (the ramp also still existing).

The original proposal for granary access was via a hydraulic lift, as was done for the Stanley Flagg Company across the tracks. The granary owners objected. A ramp at a 4% grade was built instead.

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There are very few places you can find existing rail tracks along the Callowhill Cut and ramps. One spot is on the ramp to the granary, with rail tracks up to both former loading docks. Here you can see the north set of tracks. The south set is just out of the frame. There are also tracks under the cantilevered overhang between 18th and 19th Streets on the north side of the cut.

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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).

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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.

The water tank on the left is atop the Laird building.

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 1971 the granary became home to a new restaurant called...The Granary. This lasted a year until being replaced by a restaurant and entertainment venue called the Ole Mill Inn. In 1974 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.

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Restaurant announcement in the Inquirer on November 7, 1971.

We need more restaurants with treehouses.

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Perri Johnson at The International Astro Disc (photo from here, pages 33-38).

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.

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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.
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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

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The Granary on the left and the granary, from Baldwin Park, looking west.

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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 by February 2021 work neared completion on a conversion to a total of 22 short-stay apartments on the upper floors (nine units on each of floors 3 and 4, and four units on floor 5) and two floors of retail on the lower floors.

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East side of the granary: birth date inside a Reading diamond logo

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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 across with 15-inch thick walls. The angles at each intersection are buttressed to give a slightly octagonal cross-section.

The granary under its new function was christened The Tidewater Sonder, with information here. The short-stay apartment entrance is on Shamokin Street. The entrance on 20th Street leads into a Fine Wine and Good Spirits retail store.

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Multilevel wine and spirits retailer on 20th Street

The Tidewater Sonder entrance is up the ramp on the right.

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Apartment entrance on Shamokin Street in February 2021.

by Joe Walsh and Sandra Owens
originally September 2018
with last update February 2021