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Vacant-lot exhibit showcases history

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In the not-so-distant past, many would walk or drive by the vacant lot at 2025 Federal St., without having a second thought about the house that once stood there.

Local artist Maria Möller, however, wasn’t one of those people.

The resident of 12th and Tasker streets decided last winter that this brick-and-cement-free space was filled with potential and applied for a $5,000 grant through the Fund for Art and Civic Engagement, a new initiative of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s Percent for Art Program.

“It felt like a really pertinent location for the piece,” the Glenside native said. “It was located between new development and houses that have been there for a long time.”

Teaming up with Diversified Community Services, 1529 S. 22nd St., the project’s community partner, “The House That Was Here” was designed with historical information on the former site along with too-small-to-live-in sculptures of miniature row houses that have made this previously vacant space a popular topic of summer conversation. The sides of the picturesque pieces are covered in close-to-a-century worth of stories about this once ordinary house collected from census records and memories.

Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., residents will be able to add their own parting message at the third and final open house. Using markers, paint and paste, guests will be able to add another layer with their memories of Point Breeze or the future hopes for the neighborhood.

Students also played an active role by conducting interviews and installing artwork in the lot during the WorkReady summer internship program.

“They were great, and an integral part of the process,” Möller said.

Clarion University senior Aleya Miller, who is working for Diversified this summer, has spent Fridays at the site with a group of teenagers installing art work.

“I though it was great because it was community based from where they are from,” the resident of the 2500 block of South Hancock Street said. “A lot of kids their age don’t take pride in their community to try and make it better.”

The history of “The House That Was Here” dates back to 1879, according to the project website, when tailor James Roney resided there. Numerous others moved in after him, but on June 24, 1885, Fire Co. 24 was called to the site of the three-story home to put out a fire that was believed to be caused by a child playing with matches. The location remained a residential location until 1942 when it was zoned for mixed-use. The City of Philadelphia Department of Records has a ’56 photo that included a garage.

The property time line ends in ‘62, but memories collected from the research include a fire at some point during that decade in which a fire bomb caused four properties, including the one at 2025 Federal St., to burn to the ground.

“Vacant lots are everywhere,” Möller, who also was involved in 2011 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s Journeys South that included East Passyunk Avenue and the Italian Market as host locations. “But I can’t think of a better place where a house once stood as truly being vacant. Memories are there, the stories of people who once lived there are there. The story of how the lot became vacant is there, as is the story of what happens to it afterwards.”

Being based in Philadelphia is a plus as it’s the first city in the United States to adopt programs for acquiring and commissioning works of contemporary public art for new development in urban renewal areas. The Percent for Art program, which was pioneered in 1959, requires that developers, who build on the land acquired from and assembled by the Redevelopment Authority, budget at least once percent of the total building construction costs toward the commissioning of original, site-specific works of art.

Möller’s art background includes both theater, as she earned a Master of Fine Arts in acting from Temple University, and photography, as she has always enjoyed taking pictures.

“A couple of years ago, I turned my focus to visual work,” she said. “It just started to excite me a lot more.”

Her work has certainly caught the attention of longtime resident Alice Shockley, of the 1500 block of Wharton Street, who attended Saturday’s open house and left with a lasting impression of all of the research that was put into the project.

“I found it fascinating. It was an interesting concept,” she said.

For others like Miller, the project will serve as an inspiration for her future career path of being a basketball coach. The sports management major said she found the project to be extremely beneficial.

“It gave me insight of what it’s like to be in charge and teach kids,” she said.

This weekend might bring the open-house sessions to a close, but Möller said the plan is to keep the once-vacant lot filled at least through Sept. 3.

“The houses themselves will [eventually] go to a community garden. They are not meant to hold up for a long period of time,” she said of the space that will eventually be put back up on the market.

For more information, visit thehousethatwashere.tumblr.com.

Contact Editor Bill Gelman at bgelman@southphillyreview.com or ext. 121.

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