CIHD: The Heid Building

The Callowhill Industrial Historic District (CIHD) is bounded by North Broad Street to the west, Hamilton Street to the north, Pearl Street to the south, and 12th Street and the curve of the Reading Railroad Viaduct to the east. It is a relatively small historic district of 66 resources – 39 contributing buildings, one contributing site, one contributing structure, 24 non-contributing sites and one non-contributing building. The early phases of our exploration of The Eraserhood focus on the dedicated buildings within this district.

If the vacant lot on the southeast corner of 13th and Wood where David Lynch lived during the 1966-67 school year is the heart of The Eraserhood, then the Heid building, dominating the northeast corner – and the entire block from 13th to 12th from Wood to Carlton – is the heart of CIHD. The nomination of the CIHD was sparked by the owners of this 1928 envelope factory. The owners sought the help of Powers & Co. to get the Heid listed on the National Register. They were told that the Heid was, “a nice building,” but the state encouraged Powers to look at the possibility of an historic district, instead. The owners agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The eight floor, 80,000 square foot block may be one of the first projects to benefit from CIHD’s new status.

(All information courtesy of Plan Philly.

Heart of the Eraserhood

“I just have to think of Philadelphia, now, and I get ideas, I hear the wind, and I’m off into the darkness somewhere.”

– David Lynch, from a 1987 interview with Jeffrey Ferry, collected in David Lynch Interviews, edited by Richard A. Barney

David Lynch came to Philadelphia in 1966, to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For a year he lived at 13th and Wood Streets, “right kitty-corner from the morgue,” and next door to Pop’s Diner. In myriad interviews Lynch credits his time in Philadelphia with the beginning of his first original ideas. His short residence om 13th Street gave rise to Eraserhead, the movie he calls his, “Philadelphia Story.”

Watching Eraserhead, especially if you have stood at this intersection, this is only a slight stretch to imagine. The buildings on the southeast corner, both where Lynch Lived and the one that held Pop’s Diner, have been razed. (Houses that clearly date to the same era still stand nearby at 13th and Pearl. There’s even a diner of appropriate vintage at 12th and Wood and another at 13th and Vine.) Other than on the actual corner, the architecture of the intersection has changed very little. The northwest corner still holds the building that was the morgue, now owned by Roman Catholic High School. Northeast, the grim facade of the currently closed Heid building frowns down on the site. To the southeast, the back of the Packard Motor Company building houses a truck rental facility.

To really understand the experiences that awoke Lynch’s artistic sensibility, one needs to imagine this corner as it was in 1966, though. Not only were many of the nearby structures still occupied by active manufacturing at the time, complete with the accompanying sounds, but there were three active rail lines, including the Broad Street Subway and two branches of the Reading Viaduct within a one block radius. These sounds are very clearly transmitted to the soundtrack of Eraserhead.

Lynch has stressed how empty and silent the neighborhood became after 5pm in that era. He also claimed, “I only lived at night,” during that era. One is led to imagine him sleeping during the day and working and studying after dark. Clearly, if this vision is at all realistic, the sounds of this neighborhood came to inhabit his dreams… and eventually his work.

Clearly, then, this intersection is the cultural heart of what we now call The Eraserhood. It turns out to also be the heart of Philadelphia’s newest historic district, the Callowhill Industrial Historic District. Standing on the southeast corner and looking north, the bulk of the Heid, the owners of which initiated the investigation leading to the registration of the Callowhill District, building fills one’s view. Peering down the east sidewalk, however, one can also see the red brick facade of the Goodman Brothers Building. Further down, just past the Noble Street crossing of the Reading Viaduct, the Rebman Brothers Building is visible.

Turning to look east down Wood Street, the stone causeway of the main branch of the Reading Viaduct can be seen clearly a block and a half away. While the southeast corner remains empty today, the previously mentioned Packard Motor Company building still occupies the southwest corner, and the entire block to the southwest, in fact. To the northwest, behind the former morgue, one can just see a bit of the Willys-Overland Motor Company building. Above the morgue, the bulk of the massive Terminal Commerce Building, former headquarters of the Reading Railroad, dominates the skyline.

In all, seven of the contributing buildings are clearly visible from this corner. Currently, much of the grit and grime from this area’s industrial past is still present. Slowly this is destined to change, though. This change will only further make this district an asset to our city. Documentation of the state of this district before the coming transition is critical, as well.

One more word about Lynch, before we’re done this week: Many times Lynch has referred to Philadelphia as “a very sick, twisted, violent, fear-ridden, decadent, decaying place.” While many Philadelphians might come to resent this, even offered with the appropriate historical perspectives, I’d like to go on record as encouraging Lynch to continue saying these things. There are just so very many young, artistic individuals who packed their bags and moved here after watching his films and reading his interviews – to the point where The Eraserhood is now literally burgeoning with artists new arts organizations. I think we’re the better for this. The very act of telling the world how brutal life is here, is instrumental in changing the reality.

Prologue: My Eraserhood Experience

My first encounter with the Philadelphia neighborhood colorfully referred to as “The Eraserhood” probably occurred a dozen years after Davd Lynch had already departed for less sinister looking environs. A friend from college accepted a job on the bleeding edge of this district, and was proudly taking me to see his new office. Downtown Philadelphia was a radical departure from rural Chester County, PA, where I had spent all of my life up until that time. I was both excited and a bit frightened to be in the midst of what seemed to me, at the time, to be a major manufacturing district. The clarity with which I remember the moment my friend turned his car onto Noble Street from North Broad Street is somewhat shocking to me. I can still feel the fear battling with excitement. I can still hear the sounds those occupied factories were still emitting in that era. The architecture looked totally forbidding to me. At a distant end of the street three stumpy stacks lazily emitted a thin, grey smoke. The street, itself, was paved in cobbles and – especially disturbing to me, for some reason – there were rails down the center of it.

Irrationally, the rails were the biggest cause for discomfort. These were not the trolley tracks I had become accustomed to during visits to West Philadelphia with my parents. These were rails, with visible railroad ties, clearly intended for freight cars. Just being a passenger in a car using this alien street as a place to turn around felt like I had strayed into another world. I was convinced that if we traveled too far down this track, we would become irretrievably lost; that we would somehow end up driving down an active freight line, and be crushed beneath a train. Worse, we might bend a rim or break an axle here, and be forced to actually get out of the car in this place. There was the true fear: that we might be forced to actually leave the car, and face the denizens of these grim facades without our Detroit plate armor to protect us. I was convinced that setting a single foot on the ground here would mean death or certain ruin.

Clearly I was a naive rural child. Years later, viewing some of the darker scenes from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet elicited the very same visceral response from me. At the time, of course, I had no idea there was any connection between these moments of irrational terror.

It was not until the early 1990’s that I visited The Eraserhood again. Not, of course, that anybody was using this clever moniker by this time. My wife was working nearby, and we purchased a small condo west of Broad Street, in the Franklintown neighborhood, nearly equidistant between Lynch’s Wood Street location and his later Fairnount home. When we referred to The Eraserhood at all, we called it “over there.” We didn’t go over there, of course, but we passed through regularly on our way to or from eastern neighborhoods and New Jersey. At the time Philadelphia’s Vine Street Expressway was under construction, so our prime routes involved Spring Garden Street and Callowhill Street, straight through the darkest-looking heart of this district. During this period, I was still dependent on the Detriot armor. Despite the fact I was already becoming fascinated with the Gothic beauty of the architecture, driving through was all either of us were willing to do. It was years before I actually considered deliberately exploring there.

Of course, considering exploring and actually exploring are two different things. Vividly I remember fixating on the three stacks of Willow Steam from the safety and comfort of the gym on the 40th floor of Liberty Place. The brutal beauty of this edifice called to me, but I was still too fearful to actually physically visit the site. Likewise, Phillip Tyre’s mysterious spire atop the Lasher Building drew me. I attempted to visit each of these sites on my frequent lunchtime hikes, only to back out each time I began to directly experience the tone of the neighborhood. My first encounter with the Wood Street tunnels beneath the Reading Viaduct turned me around with alacrity. I could imagine anything lurking under this stone causeway, or anybody. Despite my growing fascination, I was still not ready.

The performing arts, specifically Brian Sanders’ Junk performing their acrobatic, sexually charged, and horrific Demand and Writhe in a dim and cavernous garage at 1223 Wood Street – mere yards from where Lynch had lived in the sixties – finally brought me to the ‘Hood on foot for the first time. J. Cooper Robb at Philadelphia Weekly described the performance as, “a sinew-popping and at times spellbinding excursion into the lair of a king who is so debauched he makes Caligula look like a Boy Scout,” judging it, “more impressive than it is coherent,” before ultimately admitting, “its visceral impact is undeniable.” I suspect Lynch would have loved the performance. My amazement at this work brought me back several times during the 2002 Fringe Festival where it was presented. With each successful visit to this venue, my comfort finally began to grow.

Hopefully, it is clear even to the casual reader, at this point, that my comfort was not the only thing growing by this time. The entire cultural landscape of The Eraserhood was shifting at this point, as well. The factories had long since stopped operating for the most part. The frightening factory sounds Lynch so realistically portrayed in Eraserhead were now practically nonexistent. The stacks stood cold and empty. Some building were already being refurbished as lofts and condos.

It was not until February 2006, however, that I finally began to cement a regular relationship with The Eraserhood. At this time I was hired by a software company that maintained offices in the historic Wolf Building at 12th and Callowhilll streets. Once I accepted this position, I could no longer ignore the industrial blocks surrounding the office. Since my office offered a direct view of The Lasher’s famous spire, and my walk from Market East Station took me along the path of the Reading Viaduct, it was no longer possible to delay exploration. Slowly I began to truly examine this strange place with newly familiar eyes. With each new discovery, I became more and more fascinated.

By this time the transitions that I had already noticed in 2002 had gained some genuine momentum. More old factories had already been converted to residences. Many unstable structures had been razed and replaced. Diners, restaurants, and coffeehouses had started to thrive. The Reading Viaduct Project, “dedicated to the preservation and remediation of The Reading Viaduct as a public open green space,” had already been active for over two years. The rails and cobbles on Noble Street were almost entirely paved over with asphalt.

On Halloween day in 2007, I discovered a new hobby, that very quickly took an important place in my life. That day I used my cell phone to take a series of photos of the Reading Terminal Market, using a free piece of digital image processing software known as “Hugin” to stitch these images into a single panoramic image. Two days later, I took my first image of Philadelphia, as seen from The Eraserhood. Soon I was shooting original images daily, posting them regularly online. Needless to say, the architectural drama offered by the blocks surrounding my office provided nearly boundless inspiration. My first image of Center City as viewed from The Eraserhood was taken on November 2, only two days after my original experiment. By December 2 I was focusing on this neighborhood.

It was not until September, 2009 that I first heard the term, “The Eraserhood,” on a blog known as “Philebrity.” By this time I had generated well over 300 panoramic images, many focusing on this area. In the process I had progressed from my cellphone to a borrowed Nikon E800, and most recently to a Nikon Coolpix L20. Of course, images composed by stitching multiple originals offer much more resolution than any of these cameras deliver just shooting single images.

For years prior to 2006 I had literally had regular dreams of visiting a mysterious, secret neighborhood adjacent to Philadelphia’s Old City. Around 2009, these dreams began to be explicitly about exploring The Eraserhood. Early in 2010, The Eraserhood – now officially known as “Callowhill Industrial Historic District” – was dedicated on the National Register of Historic Places, following a two-year nomination process conducted by Powers & Company, Inc.

While I had loved Blue Velvet and many of David Lynch’s other works, I had never actually viewed Eraserhead. Recently Shawn Kilroy’s short film Eraserhead Neighborhood inspired me to finally view Eraserhead. itself. This combined experience finally took me over the edge. Now I am dreaming this place every night, working there all day, and still generating new images during my lunchtime walks: I need to document my experiences in this space more completely than photography alone will allow.

Over the next months I intend to publicly explore all the landmarks in The Eraserhood, using the twisted panoramic images I have been generating as illustrations. Please come back for bits of history, legend, and personal experience, hopefully portrayed in an interesting and engaging manner. We will attempt to uncover the mysteries of The Eraserhood together.