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Fire-damaged Vox Populi building will reopen Dec. 1 for First Friday

L&I has inspected the North 11th Street building and says it is in compliance with city code and safe to reopen.

Pre-fire image of the 319 N 11th St. building the houses Vox Populi, a contemporary art space and collective. PHOTO COURTESY / GOOGLE STREET VIEW
Pre-fire image of the 319 N 11th St. building the houses Vox Populi, a contemporary art space and collective. PHOTO COURTESY / GOOGLE STREET VIEWRead morePHOTO COURTESY / GOOGLE STREET VIEW

It was unsettling, to say the least.

On June 28, a small but smoky fire broke out in the wee hours of the morning in the stairwell of the old industrial loft building at 319 N. 11th St. No one was in the building, which is largely occupied by arts organizations, galleries, and artist spaces, and the fire department quickly extinguished the blaze without injury or incident.

Most damage was smoke- and water-related, but the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections directed that the building be closed until code violations – chiefly the damaged north stairwell — were corrected.

Arts organizations, including some of the city's most venerable artist-run galleries and collectives, scrambled to rescue their artwork and to find new space.

That was June. Now they are back, and the building will reopen with First Friday celebrations on Dec. 1.

Vox Populi, the large artist collective founded in 1988,  which occupies the building's third floor, has announced it will once again take up its quarters and will host a First Friday reopening bash.

AUTOMAT Collective, which is one of a group of galleries on the second floor, is also planning a First Friday opening exhibit and, naturally, a "fire sale." Practice Gallery, Marginal Utility, Grizzly Grizzly, and Napoleon plan the same.

"It looks like … a full house!" exclaimed  Jillian Schley, an AUTOMAT Collective member.

Several organizations found temporary homes in the artist building at 990 Spring Garden St. while they waited for their old building.

Repairs were finally completed, and L&I inspected the building a few days ago. Agency spokeswoman Karen Guss said Tuesday that L&I inspectors concluded that violations have all been corrected and the building "was safe to reopen."

Debra Ward, Vox board president, said the fire had caused "a somewhat challenging disruption for us."

While Vox and many of the artist organizations could rally at 990 Spring Garden, Vox still faced problems, largely because of its size, throughout the summer and into the fall, Ward said. With about 22 members, the collective needs a lot of space for its exhibition programs; it even needs a lot of space simply to meet.

"We halted programming through the summer," Ward said. That hiatus continued as repairs took longer than expected.

"We are ecstatic," Ward said of the reopening. "The members are so happy to be back in the old space."

Schley, of AUTOMAT Collective, said she had stopped in at the Eleventh Street building on Monday.

"It looks good," she said, though gallery spaces were somewhat in disarray, reflecting the hasty exit. The north stairwell has been fitted with a metal replacement. The building's other stairwell was undamaged. No spaces were harmed by the disruptive fire either.

Schley said AUTOMAT has been busy the last few months, despite the temporary displacement.

"We've really been impressed by the support in the community," she said. The collective was based temporarily at 990 Spring Garden and mounted a show there in July. Subsequent shows have been held at NoBA Art Space in Bala Cynwyd and the Broad Street Studio space at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; currently there is an exhibition at the Spillway Collective in the Crane Arts building.

"We have been busy," Schley said.