Words: Megan Rajner
Photos: MMPartners, LLC
Once Upon a Warehouse
Located at the intersection of 31st Street, Oxford Street, and Glenwood Avenue in Brewerytown, Pennsylvania sits a triangular-shaped building known as Pyramid Lofts. The six-story mixed-use revitalized structure that stands there now holds a bittersweet history of resiliency.
The original building was designed and constructed in 1922 with the same intention as many other buildings in Brewerytown, PA. The neighborhood is located strategically near major roads, trains, and the Center City District, making businesses such as breweries and warehouses a popular trend of the 1920s. It was designed by famous architect Leroy B. Rothschild to serve as a commercial storefront and furniture warehouse for Harry C. Kahn & Sons, which lasted for 39 years and closed in 1961.
Sometime during the 60s, Pyramid Electric Supply Company purchased the building and remained there until the year 2000. The building itself was along a rail line, and during its occupation, the train tracks there were utilized for loading and distributing supplies from directly within the building.
The next 15 years began to define the character of the old warehouse. From 2000 to 2015, it was abandoned, leaving it suitable for becoming a blank canvas to both local and national graffiti artists such as Texas, Gane, and Dirt Worship and a sought-after destination for photographers seeking the perfect artistic backdrop. Like many places in Philadelphia, the Pyramid Electric building became an amazing spot for those who love to explore!
MMPartners wrote the next chapter for the life of the Pyramid Building when they acquired the property in June of 2016, utilizing federal and state historic tax credits as well as senior construction financing from Citizens Bank CRA group. The development company claims to be “a vertically integrated real estate development, and construction management company, formed to revitalize and effectuate positive change within Philadelphia’s historic Brewerytown neighborhood.”
With previous historic renovation experience developing AF Bornot Dye Works Loft at 1642 Fairmont Avenue, a vacated textile factory, this was not an unfamiliar challenge to MMPartners.
They have been building in Brewerytown since 2001 with an emphasis on good design, sustainability, and giving back to the community, and maintain the same philosophy for each project – high quality, modern design, and value for all their renters and buyers.
In resurrecting the bones and character of the building, the new Pyramid Lofts became home to 50 design-driven loft-style apartments with exposed concrete floors, ductwork, conduit, and columns. Each unit has open floor plans, high ceilings, and large windows that mimic the industrial windows of the original warehouse while providing sweeping views of Fairmount Park and the City Center Philadelphia skyline. Divided into 24 studios, 12 one-bedrooms, and 14 two-bedrooms, they each have quartz countertops and higher-end appliances that draw upscale residents.
The development, which was completed on schedule in the summer of 2017 at a total budget of $11.7 million, also includes 5,000 square feet of commercial space, as well as amenities such like a 24/7 fitness facility, package concierge, bike storage, private storage lockers, and 31 private parking spaces.
A unique feature of many of the units and common areas is the decorative graffiti art created while the building was vacant, which has been left on some of the walls by MMP’s Curated Art Program to enrich the renovated structure with its own history. In addition, the iconic “Pyramid Electric” signage was restored.
Assessing the Architecture
“When we first visited the building, it was a little bit in disarray, but the structure of the building was rock solid,” says John Marshall, President and Principal of Marshall Sabatini Architecture. John, along with Project Architect at Marshall Sabatini Architecture Kevin Peters, were a part of the team hired for the Pyramid Electric rehabilitation project and have given some insight on its existing conditions and changes throughout the renovation.
For example, the masonry of the existing structure on the exterior was in great shape, but the windows were replaced with plexiglass and some colored glass. To do the building justice, Marshall and Peters chose to replace all the existing apertures with new warehouse-style windows that would allow in the same ample amount of light, which also attracted MMPartners from a development standpoint. Each warehouse-style window assembly contained a centered hopper-style window so that occupants could open the windows for fresh air.
While the views through these windows were outstanding, the triangular shape of the building made it tough to create functional apartment layouts. The units ended up being unique in size, and only a few maintained a typical rectilinear apartment shape.
One of the challenges in this project was a steep slope from one end of the building to the other, which resulted in being accessible at the sidewalk while parking was available at the back of the building. A new elevator replaced the old freight elevator for residential accessibility, and the two existing fire stairs remained.
One fire stair was internal, and the other is known as a “Philadelphia stair.” This is where you go outside at each level, and the stairs are internal. It was crucial from a design standpoint to maintain the Philadelphia stair because it created a prominent architectural feature on the outside of the building.
MMPartners wanted to keep the building looking as raw as possible while creating fresh living space, so when they discovered the masonry floors and columns were in really good shape, they chose to polish them and leave the ceiling exposed, staying true to its industrial character. The columns ended up dictating where the unit boundaries would be and even had mushroom caps, which lends a rare architectural element to the lofts. The mechanical system was spiral ductwork, which also kept the warehouse look on the interior.
Since last year, the building has already been recognized in publications by the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Alliance as an award winner for the design intent of the windows, which ends up being a wall of windows. According to Peters, the wall ends up being about 16-18 feet wide and 9 or so feet tall, while the ceilings are approximately 12 foot per floor.
Light was internalized by using either a low wall or an interior window to take advantage of the incredible amount of daylight in the units. In some of the studio apartments, the whole exterior wall is glass, which is said to look absolutely remarkable.
Marshall mentions that throughout the design process, they collaborated with a historic consultant for two reasons, “Even though it was old and qualified just by its uniqueness, it wasn’t currently registered with the National Historic Society… and while the building wasn’t in so much disarray that it was going to fall down, there still was some renovation of the brick when we took out existing windows.”
The very particular masonry work of this project required the extensive knowledge provided by the historic consultant when it came to matching mortar with the existing to maintain its historical value. Many site meetings were necessary to determine what was or was not required from a historical standpoint, which is typical for any project involving a building in a historic district. For example, some painted areas of the existing brick were not required to be exposed, yet some areas of already exposed brick were required to be repointed.
A perfect example of architecture at its best, this project joined a developer and architect to reuse an iconic landmark with a rich history to transform its surrounding neighborhood, which is precisely what MMPartners envisioned form the beginning. At a total 70,000 square feet and all units rented out before construction was even complete, this project seems like a successful historic rehabilitation if there ever was one.