Standing in a second-floor studio in his hulking brick building in Germantown, John Fiorella imagined what he might have seen had he been there when it was built, about a century ago.
It was a textile mill then, he said, the huge windows letting in sufficient sunlight for workers to see what they were doing.
"So it was cheap to light," Fiorella said.
Kneeling next to him, painter Andrew Christman agreed.
"I haven't had to turn a light on here in two years," Christman said, looking over colorful organic shapes in irregular, spoon-like frames.
Germantown's manufacturing era is long gone. But woodworker Fiorella and his business partner/brother, Mike, have found ways to make the building at 20 Herman St., just off Germantown Avenue, as relevant to the community as its predecessor was, using it as their shop and renting out 25 artist's studio spaces.
It all started in a step aerobics class in Abington in 1994.
Gary Fromm, who was operating his Doors Unlimited business at the Herman Street building, told John Fiorella, who was working out next to him, that he had found a better site on Hunting Park Avenue and wanted to sell the building.
Pausing for breath, Fiorella said he and Mike were dissatisfied with their own Germantown location and might be interested.
By the following year, they were more than interested - they were owners.
"It was a better space for us, a larger space," John Fiorella said.
"The whole space was windows," Mike Fiorella added.
There was obviously more room than the Fiorellas needed, and their intent from the start was to rent out the top floor. Condos were out - the cost would have been prohibitive.
Artist's studios were a natural fit, said the brothers, who grew up in Chestnut Hill but had fallen in love with Germantown. The location is close to Center City and the Main Line, where they do much of their work. And Herman Street Studios would be a greater asset to the neighborhood than a condo building.
"You get a community feel, with people coming and going," said John Fiorella. "And it was much cheaper than breaking it up into apartments."
Plus, he said, "I only had to put in two bathrooms, no tub."
The Fiorellas have done several major projects, replacing windows at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and doing restoration work at historic houses along Germantown Avenue, including the Johnson House, Wyck, Grumblethorpe, and Cliveden.
But John Fiorella says he gets particular satisfaction from smaller jobs in Germantown, including detective work that lets him find historically accurate replacements for, say, a missing molding that hasn't been commercially available for decades.
"I can wander around the neighborhood and usually find something close," he said.
Though development has been slow in recent years, he said, he has seen encouraging signs of renewed energy, with new people coming in.
"It's starting to get critical mass," Fiorella said, noting he hopes to add to that with the small colony of painters, architects, and woodworkers he has assembled.
All are from the immediate area. Most can walk to work, and many welcome the chance to work in a communal atmosphere rather than in their homes.
Christman said that with more than two dozen artist-tenants - the place is almost always fully rented - Herman Street Studios is now a stop on studio tours, in addition to providing a community feeling.
Architect Jim Cassidy agreed.