Callowhill: Community Rallies Behind PhilaMOCA After Building Code Violations Threaten Closure

Licenses and Inspection cited cracks in the facade of The Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art as a hazard that needed correcting.

A crack runs down the front facade of PhilaMOCA's building, which L&I officials identified as a potential hazard. (Mary Olvia Kram/PN).

story by Mary Olivia Kram

On August 30th, Eric Bresler, owner of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, found a bright orange violation form from Philadelphia’s Office of Licenses and Inspections once again taped to the venue’s front door, claiming the building is unsafe.  

Bresler faced a threat of demolition and up to $2,600 in daily fines. He panicked; he couldn’t afford the potential fines and was worried PhilaMOCA would have to close.

He turned to Facebook and Instagram, posting a picture of the L&I notice. Neighbors and PhilaMOCA fans saw the post and rallied around the theater. 

The L&I notice citing front wall damages as a violation. (Picture courtesy PhilaMoca).

“Immediately the following day, we had articles online and everybody was sending us well-wishes,” Bresler said. “There were architects and contractors and council people emailing us and saying ‘What can we do to help? Let’s get a plan of action going.”’

Nestled amongst residential homes along North 12th Street, in the Callowhill neighborhood, PhilaMOCA has become a hub for multidisciplinary art over the past decade. On any given night, the space features art exhibits, concerts, poetry slams, film festivals, comedy shows, and even interactive viewings of cult classic films. 

PhilaMOCA was forced to shut down in September 2019 after receiving a series of L&I violations for zoning and fire safety. Through a crowdfunding campaign, the organization raised roughly $52,000 and was able to make all of the necessary repairs to satisfy the violations. Its plans to re-open in April 2020 were cancelled due to mandatory COVID-19 shutdowns. Then, on July 22nd of this year, PhilaMOCA finally reopened its doors.

Matthew Schmidd, a member of the Philadelphia sketch duo Incredible Shrinking Matt & Jackie, is both a patron and frequent performer at the venue. 

“I think people are really passionate about PhilaMOCA, because there’s not much else like it,” says Schmidd. “Large venues keep opening in Philly and swallowing everything up. It’s also so important to have all-ages venues where young people can go, be safe, and be exposed to incredible art, music, and film.”

The building itself has a colorful history. As an homage to its origins as a mausoleum showroom in the 1860s, “Finney and Sons” still graces its facade. On the sidewalk, iron lettering ingrained into the cement reads, “Mad Decent,” as a reminder that the building once served as headquarters for dj and music producer Diplo. 

During Mad Decent’s tenure in the building, big name artists like Shakira and Christina Aguilera recorded there.

Drea Chunko, a do-it-yourself concert producer, said that without venues like PhilaMOCA, a large part of the independent arts scene might die out. 

“It has a massive cultural impact, especially with small venues disappearing,” she said.  ”I think that if PhilaMOCA is ever gone, then so would all of the local arts. That is such a sad and scary thing to think about.”

In order to keep operating, L&I required PhilaMoca to obtain an engineer’s report. One of PhilaMOCA’s fans connected Bresler with a reputable engineer who could return an inspection quickly.  

“She identified everything that she could guess got us the violation, which were very few items,” Bresler said. “She saw repairs that could be made, but nothing that would have really been deemed unsafe.” 

Bresler worked with the current building owner to fund repairs and bring the building into compliance with L&I. 

“The building owner is happy to make repairs; he has no intention of selling this building anytime soon,” Bresler said. “He’s planning on keeping us as tenants for years to come.” 

A donation bin at the entrance of the venue. (Mary Olivia Kram/PN) 

The community that  quickly rallied behind PhilaMOCA is what keeps many of the venue’s fans and performers coming back, Bresler said. 

“It’s probably a little corny and cliche, but as culture is entrenched more and more online, I think it’s vital to have spaces where people can get together in the same room and share a common experience,” Schmidd said. “And there’s no place in the city to have an experience quite as unique as PhilaMOCA.” 

Bresler says support from members of the community was crucial in helping him find the resources he needed to keep PhilaMOCA open. 

“We wouldn’t be open today without the public and the press’s support,” he said. “There were so many people that reached out to help, I never would have found the company that did the report if it wasn’t recommended by someone.”

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