Emily and Todd Grant love bringing buildings back to life. It’s what attracted the wife and husband team to the old firehouse building on Germantown Avenue.
Firehouse Arts opened in Germantown last month, with a variety of creative studios and possibilities for other multi-use space. The building will be open for POST (Philadelphia Open Studio Tours) on October 19th.
Emily, an artist and teacher, and Todd, an architect, moved to the neighborhood with their two children, after buying an old colonial farmhouse made in what was likely the 1750s.
The two met at Cranbrook Academy of Art, in a graduate program known for its conceptual ideas and rigorous studio time (also the same program that another Germantown artist, Karyn Olivier, went). Emily was in ceramics and Todd was in architecture. Together they blended Emily’s soft precision and measurement by eye, and Todd’s industrial and more rigid style of work into a collaborative process. It’s a combination that has followed them into their work with buildings, both their own house and the firehouse.
“When we first moved to this neighborhood, we bought our home, and we were just going to focus on our house,” said Emily. “We were doing all of these projects together but never in the place we were living.”
“I kept driving past this (firehouse) building and one day I noticed a sale sign going up, “ she continued.
The rest is a multiyear journey working with a family-owned bank they had an ongoing relationship with and another larger bank, dealing with a sturdy but very damaged infrastructure, and just having a great vision of what could be.
“One of the biggest and scariest parts of the project was shoring up all of these trusses, lifting it up, sliding in the channels,” said Todd. “(G)etting everything sized by engineers with special inspection kits, and seeing how far the rock had traveled.”
It was a huge project. The bank wasn’t sure about the location, after a round of gun violence in the area. But both Emily and Todd saw how the vision could work in Germantown.
“When we first moved to Fishtown it was no different, “ said Todd. “It was the same level of tension. We weren’t comfortable with the acceleration of development (there).”
“There’s a lot of voices in Germantown and they’re trying to be protective, “ Todd continued. “Everyone sees what’s happening and what happened in Fishtown and no one wants it.”
Emily notes some of the development history of Fishtown was good. She sees the historical significance of the Germantown neighborhood and the way things can evolve, with the neighborhood as part of the story.
Emily and Todd understand the beauty of old buildings but also understand how development changes over time.
“History and beauty are an evolving thing,” said Todd. “History has a life.”
They renovated the firehouse with enough adaptability with hopes that the building can evolve and change with the neighborhood.
Emily describes her clear vision of the space.
“It’s a place that is clean and quiet and exquisite in a very simple way, that has beautiful light, that could be a zen place for someone to just explode with creativity,” she said.