April 28-May 4, 2005
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Meet the painters, potters and printmakers who are transforming a Port Richmond textile mill into a hive of creativity.
In the 1960s, the Challenger III was the machine of the future. With its massive steel frame sprouting dozens of arms with needles at the ends, it resembles a spaceship as envisioned by H.G. Wells. And this space-age behemoth could knit like nobody's business.
On a clear March day, in the basement of a turn-of-the-century building in Port Richmond, sunlight spills on about a dozen of these circular knitting machines, glistening with white thread. A thin layer of fuzz sits on the mechanisms, and some of the engraved text on the body is worn away. It's as if the whole operation is stopped in time.
But the years have been relatively kind to the Oliver Knitting Company buildings, two brick structures on a stretch of Amber Street in Port Richmond that were once home to, among others, the Oliver family's hosiery business, a carpet manufacturer and textile outfits over the course of the last 120 years. Walk half a dozen blocks from the Allegheny stop on the Market-Frankford line, and you'll find Amber Street. Delivery trucks and loading docks tip off this hive of industry, one of the last in this once-thriving port neighborhood that's one of the largest Polish communities in the country.
Inside are 55 tenants who now rent from Tom Oliver III, son of one of the building's earliest and most successful tenants. The diversity of business here is astounding, prompting one tenant to call it lovingly, of course "a freak show."
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
There's Marvin Mack, the ex-boxer working on his own line of denim fashions (and who worked in the building as a teenager). There's Vin Marshall and his metalwork studio, where he makes prototypes for inventors and architectural projects. There's a dollmaker, a therapeutic pillow and eyepad business, an athletic wear company, and a band or two. Metropolitan Flag & Banner Co., which produces giant banners for organizations like the Kimmel Center, the Phillies and local universities, has operated out of the building for more than five years. And in November, the Animal House a wrestling school, complete with ring opened up shop in the basement.
The rest could be described as artists. Potters, painters, bookbinders, videographers, filmmakers, musicians, printmakers, fashion designers all create their passions, and very often their livelihoods, within these walls. Just like the Oliver family's employees and the textile businesses before them, they're honing their crafts here in the spaces surrounding the room full of Challengers, in a sort of accidental community of artistic enterprise where you'd least expect it.
"Have you met Dan yet? He's a painter." "Do you know about the bookbinders?"
Meet Matt Watkins, the Oliver buildings' superintendent. A small, soft-spoken man with ruddy cheeks and an easy, warm smile, often sporting a baseball cap and brown winter vest, Watkins takes obvious pride in the work of the Oliver's tenants, practically glowing when he talks about one or another of their ventures. He knows this place better than most people know their own homes. Down narrow hallways and through time-worn doors, heaving open elevator gates, he proceeds confidently with dozens of keys jangling as he goes, crossing the alley under the "catwalk," a green corrugated metal bridge that connects the two buildings.
"I make sure everything works," he says. Watkins, 72, worked for Tom Oliver II in the knitting company and is now the younger Oliver's right-hand man. He works on the boilers, makes repairs, helps tenants come to terms with the stubborn elevators. Sometimes he arrives before dawn.
His first stop nearly every morning, including weekends, is a basement space in the 3245 building that once housed a machine shop. Watkins' "office" has become famous among the buildings' tenants for his collection of Coca-Cola knickknacks, Eagles memorabilia, old Life magazines and an artificial tree he decorates with lights for every holiday.
"Sunday I come up here on my own," says Watkins, who lives about a mile from the Oliver buildings and often bicycles into work. "I check the doors because I'm very concerned about the tenants. I want them to make it."
Born and raised in Kulpmont, a coal-mining region in upstate Pennsylvania, Watkins worked in the mines during his teens until his mother decided it was too dangerous. He came to Philly to find work, but on his first visit, riding in a truck that delivered coal, he wasn't impressed. "And I said, "I never want to live in Philadelphia,' I didn't like it, it stinks too bad," he says, laughing. "But I ended up here, and here I am."
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
For Watkins, it's clearly a comfortable place to be. For the tenants, the primary appeal of the place, most admit, is the affordable rent compared to the rest of the city. Beyond that, it's a little more philosophical.
"The synergy lately with the artists' community I haven't consciously gone out to do it," says Tom Oliver. "The facility lends itself to it."
Tom Oliver III, a tall, affable man with a full head of white hair, is sitting in a tiny basement office behind those machinery-filled rooms. He jokes that it's the only space left after renting out everything else. Here, surrounded by pictures of his father and early Oliver employees and snapshots of his kids, he operates Willard Realty with a small desk, a bulletin board and the conspicuous absence of a computer. Oliver spent 10 years traveling the world selling his dad's invention, the AutoReset, a device that automatically restarts a knitting machine that's ground to a halt due to knotted-up yarn. Now he manages these buildings and sticks close to his home and family in Jenkintown.
"I was an art major considering architecture," says the 55-year-old Oliver. "I grew up with neighbors who were artists. I always felt maybe some calling there, but the practical side of my mind, you know, it's too bohemian for me," he laughs. "It just fascinates me because I grew up with a man who was a hands-on mechanical guy, and you saw what you did and the fruits of your labor."
In 1955, the elder Oliver Navy veteran, grandson of a Scottish immigrant, son of a hosiery business owner rented the top floors of 3237 Amber St. to house his family's hosiery factory operations. The business continued to thrive during what his son calls "the doubleknit boom of the '60s" brought on by the demand for such fashion trends as the leisure suit. "You couldn't make enough doubleknit," says Oliver. "So they ran around the clock for years. [At one point], there were 50 employees making 50,000 pounds of fabric a week."
The original building, 3245 Amber St., dates from 1885, and construction continued through 1915, during which time the Masland family occupied the property with their carpet business. Each phase added a new "mill," a self-contained structure, each with its own fire escape and plumbing systems. In 1935, the Masland Carpet Co. moved to Carlisle, Pa., but maintained ownership of the property, which now consumes about five and a half acres of this neighborhood.
"This was initially built as a single-user for a carpet manufacturer," says Oliver. "It was state of the art when it was built because it was close to where the workers were."
The Oliver family bought the property from the Maslands in 1983 and began renting out its spaces to various textile businesses, but little by little, the industrial buzz in Port Richmond waned. Oliver said the migration first went down south, even by the 1960s, but by the early '80s, manufacturers of all kinds, like the textile businesses once housed in the Oliver buildings, picked up and moved operations elsewhere, very often overseas.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Now, like the round-the-clock factory workers before them, the current tenants of the Oliver buildings were attracted by amenities like good natural light and sturdy, comfortable hardwood floors. And everyone artists, carpet cutters, UPS workers still uses the rickety sliding-gate elevators, made skinny to haul rolls of carpet, that the Masland workers did.
Five floors up one of those elevators is the studio of painter Dan Schimmel, one of the first artists to rent from Tom Oliver. Schimmel's studio was once filled with knitting equipment, Watkins says. It's exactly where the Oliver Knitting Company operations were, where little Tom Oliver would run around and play while his father worked. Watkins could probably tell you a story about every tenant's space if you asked him.
"It's a very organic building, it mutates and metastasizes," says Schimmel of the way people encounter the Oliver buildings, and decide to become part of its landscape. "I like it because it's out of the way of developers and the Old City hipster crew." Schimmel, director and co-curator of the Esther M. Klein Art Gallery at the University City Science Center, has spread the Oliver word to others, including painter Michelle Oosterbaan, who's rented here for three years. After chatting with Schimmel at Standard Tap, Oosterbaan rented the space once occupied by InLiquid director John Murphy. "It's the best studio I've ever had," she says. She appreciates the atmosphere on Amber Street, that "you can be meditative, or globe-trot around the building."
Like other tenants who've discovered the pierogi vendors, Taconelli's pizza and pretzels under the El, Schimmel's become familiar with the neighborhood that surrounds the Oliver buildings. He especially likes the old-world delis and was excited to find German kinder eggs, hollow chocolate eggs with toys inside. "It's the only place you can get them," he says.
Two floors down from Schimmel, Kat Reilly shows off her fire escape and its views of the neighborhood. "All of the sudden this area has an electrical current running through it," says Reilly, a bright-eyed, energetic redhead. Reilly operates her Katseye photography studio out of this many-windowed corner unit, and Halcyon Gallery, a multipurpose arts center, out of another bigger space down the hall.
After renting the photography studio space for about seven years and falling in love with the building, she opened Halcyon. The gallery now has 11 members, and since its opening has been home to exhibitions, poetry readings, DJ nights, musical performances and art workshops for neighborhood children. Reilly's constantly transforming the space rearranging furniture, adjusting lighting to make it event-appropriate. In the fall, she organized a benefit for Calcutta House, a North Philly AIDS hospice, that included food, entertainment, art displays, even a horse-and-carriage ride. "It was awesome," says Reilly, whose excitement is contagious as she talks about the harmonious dichotomy between "the elegance of the horse and carriage and the rawness of the factory."
Reilly walks down the hallway to open up Halcyon, and she bumps into a young blonde woman just off the elevator. She greets her with an enthusiastic hello and hug. This is painter and Pew-winner Rebecca Rutstein. She's nearly out of breath, running back and forth between the third and fifth floors working on a project. She's just been burning silkscreens at Outlaw Print, a printmaking studio run by Pete Whitney and Joel Peterson. Outlaw finds itself a frequent collaborator in the Oliver buildings, doing contract work with Dana Haley and the Urban Renewal division of Urban Outfitters. Outlaw has screenprinted on vintage T-shirts for Haley's operation, which takes in tens of thousands of pounds of old clothing and sheets, refurbishes them, gives them to a sewing contractor also on the Oliver site and sells them through Urban Outfitters.
Rutstein opens the door to the studio she's rented here since 2000. "I've got views of the Betsy Ross and Ben Franklin bridges," says Rutstein, revealing a room full of tables piled high with a painter's panoply of materials. "It's all east-facing windows, it's great." Rutstein talks about her work, some of which sits propped up against or hanging on a long white wall, and that of her husband, Mike Stifel, who also rents space here, working on his mechanical sculptures in a studio down the hall.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Rutstein told Schimmel about the building, which started a ripple effect that continues to this day, right on down to Mark Lueders, who runs The Ceramic Shop out of the ground floor of the 3245 building.
"My first question was, "Where's Port Richmond?'" says Lueders, laughing. "But when I came out and saw the amount of space for the money, it was really a no-brainer."
Lueders, a ceramic artist and teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, was looking for space to expand his business, Hydro-Bat. The eponymous product is Lueders' invention, a revised version of the bat, or base for a potter's wheel, that's made of gypsum cement; it's supposedly stronger than conventional plastic bats, and makes it easier to remove work from a wheel. It was selling like hotcakes, and he needed more room.
Word of mouth from InLiquid's John Murphy Philly's smaller than you think brought him to 3245 Amber St. "And I've certainly told every artist I know about it," Lueders says. "It really wasn't that far out of the city, and for what I was doing, manufacturing a plaster object, I didn't need to be in Old City, I didn't even need to be in Northern Liberties. And that was originally what I was looking for manufacturing and my own studio space."
What it's become is The Ceramic Shop, a one-stop shop for ceramic artists looking for clay, knives and glazes. The shop, with a bright red sign hanging from its entrance on Amber, opened last summer, and now, Lueders and his wife and business partner, Birgit, offer instruction in wheel-throwing, mosaics and raku, as well as kids' "cerama-rama" classes. The Ceramic Shop also offers rental space and private lessons.
Lueders finds the building's history inspiring. "That's basically who used to be in this building, old-time clothing industry, and it's still kind of here," he says. "You get the industry feeling with the artists. There's business going on, which I think is good for artists to be around pallets coming in and out, shipments coming in." And, significantly, lots of people around. When Lueders was a new tenant in the Oliver building, he was thinking of making a CD-ROM specific to pottery instruction. He found a company, Artifact Pictures a few floors up, to do just that. When he needed to mail postcards to advertise, he found ACME Addressing Co. right next door. Slowly, he realized there were a lot of opportunities for collaboration within shouting distance.
Upstairs from The Ceramic Shop, on the fourth floor of 3245 Amber St., Karen Bogut is talking fashion.
"What's up with the nipple tassel?"
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Bogut navigates her way through racks of couture-in-progress. The spirit of the building's early textile workers survives not only in the commercial work of fabric cutters and sewing contractors scattered throughout the building, but also with Bogut and Paul Heyne. The couple, who once held fort in Old City and later Spring Garden, sells their HeyneBogut designs to high-end retailers like Knit Wit and Plage Tahiti. Their space, which once housed a tie manufacturer, is a fashion-lover's fantasy: OutKast plays on the stereo, boxes of white T-shirts wait for inspiration to strike, old filing cabinets filled with swatches of fabric are labeled by color, dozens of spools of thread line up like a discombobulated rainbow. HeyneBogut does all its own screenprinting and dyeing right there in the space. An assistant patiently hand-sews tiny white ties to tank tops, which she'll then dye with Bogut's help.
"Knowing that there's other people here is really encouraging," says Bogut. "You don't feel so isolated when you're in someplace designing all by yourself. " It's kind of the same buzz we got from being in Old City, you feel like part of a community. It feels nice."
"There's sort of a collective, creative spirit that people feed off. You don't see anybody's work, but they're still there," says Heyne.
Bogut also appreciates Oliver's attentiveness and good will toward his tenants, which might have something to do with the popularity of the building as well. "I know the guy who was in here before me, when his business started going down, [Oliver would] help him make his space smaller, you know, throw up a wall or something. Tom'll go out of his way to help you stay in business or find the space that'll work for you, just bends over backwards. I mean, I never had anybody like that. In Old City, you were late for your rent a couple weeks, I'd have like signs on my door, like cease and desist. So it's really nice to be here."
Reilly has similar experiences with Oliver. "Tom was here until 7 or 8 at night working on the space for me. He said, "You know, I just don't think there's enough light,' and he went to Home Depot and came back with two big shopping carts and installed halogen lighting. He spent two solid days [working on it.]"
"I'm just a worker bee," says Oliver. "We bought the building and I manage it. I subdivide it. I repair it. I'm the plumber. I'm the carpenter, the electrician." Indeed, in the winter he can be found, white mask over his nose and mouth, fixing the gigantic boiler in the basement.
The devotion of another worker bee, Watkins, has much to do with Oliver, too. Watkins says, a little haltingly and teary-eyed, "Not too many [people] have worked for a company that had a boss like me. He's special."
Loyalty marks much of what goes on between Watkins and Oliver, to each other and to the building where they've spent so much of their lives. Watkins' space is a testament to it, and Oliver's fondness for it is another. Watkins says Oliver has joked about putting in an extra transformer just for all the strings of lights.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
The men also share a knack for institutional memory, still referring to different sections of the buildings as "mills." Of the tenants over the years, Watkins says, "I've seen them come and I've seen them go over the last 25 years. It's sad, you know, when they give up," he says. "And see all the stuff they left behind. It's sad to see somebody go out of business. It really is."
But life goes on, and when tenants have left vestiges of their business behind, Watkins makes sure the leftovers go to good use. He talks about taking new tenants "shopping" for materials and equipment when they're getting settled in their spaces. Lueders says he once asked Watkins if he had an extra trash can lying around. "He comes out with this World War II-era trash can, this beautiful thing, you know, probably an antique worth something," says Lueders.
The neighborhood surrounding the Oliver property reflects a similar assimilation of old and new. There's the New Wave Café, a Polish restaurant on Allegheny, and Ryan Greenheck, an instructor at The Ceramic Shop, recommends Hinge Café, a coffee shop and eatery on Somerset Street with live music and plans for yoga classes and art exhibitions.
Several tenants expressed interest in connecting more with the community, whether having festivals in Campbell Square, a park on Allegheny Avenue, or teaching local kids their crafts. Reilly wants to launch PRADA, or Port Richmond Artistic Development Area, to more formally organize the artists in the area.
Sharing equipment, space and knowledge, the tenants of the Oliver buildings have the potential to work almost like a cooperative. In a way, what's happening here is a naturally occurring counterpoint to what some are trying to manufacture with prefab artist-colony-like developments like Liberties Walk in Northern Liberties another industrial neighborhood straddling the line between tradition and gentrification.
"I think it's really interesting, something happening nationally and also internationally, warehouses being turned into artist's cooperatives," says Paul Heyne. He talks about a similar building in Amsterdam that houses artists' studios and has a vegetarian restaurant on the bottom floor. "In this post-industrial era, we're all looking for space. We're all flocking to whatever area we can go to where we can get space cheap. It's just the nature of an artist. It happens really on a global level."
This trend has not been lost on Port Richmond's civic and community groups. Port Richmond Industrial Development Enterprise (PRIDE), administered by the Urban Industry Initiative, used funds provided by the Delaware River Port Authority to introduce physical improvements to the blocks surrounding the Oliver buildings paving, lighting, better signage. In 2003, the Port Richmond Community Group waged a Keep Out Wal-Mart campaign on Allegheny Avenue and won.
Oosterbaan says she noticed a difference after the signage went up, and after The Ceramic Shop opened for business. "It used to be pretty rough. It's still pretty rough, but before there was no presence at night and now there is."
The transition from the industrial community that once thrived in Port Richmond, and that in some ways still does, is eased not just by signage and neighborhood improvements but by lessons passed on by an entrepreneur whom most of the current tenants have never met. The younger Oliver remembers his father's altruism.
"Part of [my dad's] greatness, I like to say, is his ability to give so many people work for so many years. And it's something I haven't done. I mean, I create space and habitat, but I only have one employee, whereas he had 50. I mean, we were in the textile business and never were unionized because he had hospitalization for everyone. He was like their parent, they could go to him when they were in trouble he would send people to rehabs, you know, he was a good guy. And people knew that."
Tom Oliver walks through the room full of Challenger IIIs, around the industrial-size fans and scales. "This is what's left of my father's knitting company," he says of the family business that ran out of these buildings for half a century and survives today under the direction of his dad's original partner selling dancewear and leotards online. In a way, though, Oliver couldn't be more wrong about the legacy of the Oliver Knitting Company. In addition to the business ventures thriving on 3237 and 3245 Amber St., those Challenger III machines still see some circular knitting action. Pioneer Leathertouch, a company with a manufacturing plant on Ontario Street, rents the machines from Oliver so it can produce synthetic backing for vinyl upholstery on furniture and car seats. It's a rare survivor of the race to the overseas market.
What's rare, too, is what's happened within the Oliver buildings, although it's really a contemporary manifestation of what's happened for centuries, from Renaissance artists' guilds to Andy Warhol's Factory. The dynamic among the tenants evolved naturally the communication, the sharing, the collaboration.
And, in true starving-artist fashion, in the case of Kat Reilly, even the bartering.
"I traded four bolts of fabric for a print with a guy from the basement," she says.