There’s a building on Emlen Street, in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia, which I’ve driven past a hundred times, and every time, I’ve said to myself, “I should check that out sometime.”
When I say building, really I mean the bones of a building. Tall stone walls and a chimney, slowly being reclaimed by the land, set back twenty feet from the curving road behind a rusting crash-barrier.
Then, one day, my friend says to me, why don’t we go check it out finally? We’ve discussed it before. There’s a little parking lot nearby at a little trailhead. It’s spring, so the undergrowth shouldn’t be so thick we can’t easily leave the path. It’s just a short walk, and it’s warm enough outside, up from the gray misery of the morning.
The path is easy going, and wide enough for two people in some places, even if they’re not feeling cozy. We round a bend, and there it is, stark stonework jutting up behind a low thicket of brambles.
From the road, it’s difficult to tell, but from here, when you’re not being tailgated, it’s plain as daylight that what was once a large building is now two disconnected pieces. It also becomes clear why only the stone walls remain; the ground it littered with bits of charred wood, the only remains following a long-ago fire.
This isn’t some secret, inaccessible ruin visited only by those in the know–you can see this thing from a well-used road. We’re far from the first people to have been here. There’s graffiti, there’s litter. This has been a party spot and more. Many of the bottles and can strew about the inside of the main space are riddled with small-caliber holes.
A quick look around tells us that whoever was having their target practice here was only using a BB gun, though.
There have been artists, here, too. One, at least. While other parts of the building are covered with ugly sprayed tags and splashes of yellow paint, one wall is adorned with an idyllic, impressionistic scene.
So far, out exploration has raised more questions than it’s answered. The building’s original purpose is opaque to us, more so as we explore further and make another discovery. In one wall, there is a low doorway, more like a hatch, which opens into a narrow brick passageway containing the remains of some plumbing.
The wall around it is low, broken, and easily climbed, but getting down on the other side is another matter, and I’m unwilling to squeeze through the hatch. From the top of the wall, two entrances are visible, and the dirty, cracked tile work in this little connected-yet-disconnected shed reveals it to be a pair of bathrooms. The wall that used to separate the sides has been partially knocked down, so either entrance will work, though one is blocked by thin, tall, spiny plants.
The trash and graffiti are thicker here. Clearly, this is not where the party’s at.
All around, there are clues as to what the building might have looked like. Lines on the wall and chimney describe the height and slope of the roof. Rusting hinges give evidence of the large double doors that once stood at either end of the building, but still the building’s purpose is a mystery. The area is full of old mills, but this building is too far from the stream, and there’s no evidence of millstones or the machinery to drive them. The bathrooms just complicate the matter.
On the far side of the building, there’s a set of stairs leading up to a narrow stone balcony that overlooks the road and now the ruined bathrooms. A difference in stonework also indicates that there was once a door leading inside from this level, and the charred ends of beams inside support the idea of a second floor of some sort, just as they once supported the floorboards.
From the balcony, we can also see a rusting metal flower high up on the outside of the chimney: one more piece of an incomplete puzzle.
My camera’s tiny memory card is full, and while there’s plenty of speculating left to do, there’s not much building left to explore. Satisfied for now, we turn back, hoping Google will hold the secrets we’re looking for.