Photographs & History

Photographs and History

A Perspective on Photography and Preservation

Seven years after the loss of a Philadelphia Landmark

The Philadelphia Civic Auditorium a it appeared in April of 2005, about a week before I gained access to the demolition site.

The Philadelphia Civic Auditorium a it appeared in April of 2005, about a week before I gained access to the demolition site.

This coming Sunday, June 24th marks the end of a project I was part of in 2005 that completely changed the way I viewed photography. Through a random chain of events I found myself with complete access to the demolition of a Philadelphia landmark, the beautiful art deco building known originally as Municipal Hall. Designed by architect Paul H. Johnson and completed in 1930 the Auditorium was host to four National Political Conventions and notable people such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul the II. The auditorium was also utilized for countless musical performances including the Beetles, Jackson Five, Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead while also serving as the original home of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Warriors. In 1967 the opening of the Spectrum sports arena in South Philadelphia made the Auditorium virtually obsolete, and the beautiful building was relegated to a secondary status occasionally utilized for performances or University of Penn and Drexel graduation services. By the mid 1990’s the City could not entice a regular tenant and the facility began fall in neglect. The massive building was expensive to maintain and would see sporadic use as a sound stage for both TV and movie productions. Finally in 2005 the Civic Auditorium would meet its demise to clear way for construction of University of Pennsylvania Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.

What was so significant for me was the experience of having essentially three months to roam what was left of the sprawling facility and watch the remains come down piece by piece. Unfettered access to such a grand building allowed me to make countless negatives on an almost daily basis. As time passed and I became more familiar with the space, and it began to feel as if I was spending time with a dying friend, watching what was left slowly disappear. Working constantly, I allowed no time to process the film until much later when the building was so far gone there was almost nothing left to take pictures of. Finally on the 24th of June in 2005, the remaining structure of the stage (east) end was pulled down at dusk.

Final demolition of the Stage (east) end of the building. The demolition company put me in a long reach lift to capture the "pull down" of the remaining structure using a Hasselblad. You can see as the dust cleared the demolition did not go completely as planned leaving a large piece of the east and north wall standing. Crews worked through the night to bring down the remaining structure since it was structurally compromised and unsafe to leave for any amount of time.The site was not imploded due to the close proximity of several hospital facilities. 

Final demolition of the Stage (east) end of the building. The demolition company put me in a long reach lift to capture the "pull down" of the remaining structure using a Hasselblad. You can see as the dust cleared the demolition did not go completely as planned leaving a large piece of the east and north wall standing. Crews worked through the night to bring down the remaining structure since it was structurally compromised and unsafe to leave for any amount of time.The site was not imploded due to the close proximity of several hospital facilities. 

Shortly after this project, our daughter Anna was born and photography went on hold to enjoy the coming of our second child. By Fall I began looking at the work realizing, that for the most part, I was the only person to the best of my knowledge that had photographed this building in such detail at the end of its life. That this binder of negatives could be a lasting record of a building, a significant cultural and historical place that many people who visit the Penn medical campus may never know existed. This project, as unexpected an unplanned as it was made me realize just how valuable photography is, when used to preserve our historic landscape and buildings. Over the next year the seed was planted to bridge this great new revelation with something that brought me to pick up a camera years before, the railroad, this would set the stage for the Mainline Project. Beginning in 2007 I have been working to document my beloved Pennsylvania Railroad and today I have yet to run out of subject matter and enthusiasm for this project. Its been a real pleasure to share this project with so many people and receive such wonderful feedback from so many backgrounds. I look forward to sharing more as the work continues to grow and encourage your feedback on the Mainline Project and my research and photography in general.