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 via horse drawn carts and be stored in the granary's internal silos until later distribution by rail. 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. For a three minute video explaining why the fine dust  and air inside an enclosed building cause a risk of explosion, see here

Detail from a photo 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.

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 9 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. 

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 in the 1950s and 1960s, including ours which was purchased from The Reading Company. The Philadelphia Railroad also had granaries which were purchased by Tidewater. On March 28, 1957, 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. Granaries were common in the city, and not indestructible.

Aftermath of the 1957 granary explosion at 31st and Market.

(Photo credit George D. McDowell, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin)

The Girard Point granary, the penultimate granary in Philadelphia, was razed in 2007.

Sometime in the late 1960s, after the granary had hosted a failed restaurant, Sonny Hopson and Perri Johnson, two local DJ's, bought 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.

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)

The rooftop greenhouse Jacuzzi. Parker had 110 tons of soil carted up to the roof to establish lush greenery.

Parker left the granary and in 2007 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 on 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 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 here. The nine story apartment structure was opened in 2014, but the connecting structure has not been built as of yet.

The granary is still set up as a 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 has been abandoned for several years now, 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, so hopefully another reuse can be found for the neighborhood hulk. A sign of a possible rejuvenation appeared this month with the use permit posted on the granary's west side, seen below. Let's keep our fingers crossed!

East side of the granary: birth

West side of the granary: rebirth??

Above: Use Permit application 8/31/18

Below: Use Permit addendum 12/28/18

by Joe Walsh and Sandra Owens
September 2018 with updates

Matthias Baldwin Park 

423 N 19th St 

Philadelphia, PA 19130

Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to preserve the Matthias Baldwin Park

© 2018 Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park