West Philadelphia: One Photographer Turning Philadelphia’s Built Environment into Digital Delicacies

(Courtesy Chris Hytha)

Chris Hytha, a photographer and artist who graduated from Drexel University, launched his NFT collection, Rowhomes, on the OpenSea marketplace in August of 2021. Since then, he’s surpassed over 300 Ethereum (ETH) sold of his collection while releasing another collection, Highrises

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, enable artists to register their work on the blockchain, which creates a unique digital asset that can then be sold virtually. NFTs can be purchased by cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum.

Hytha has also continued to release pieces of his art on Foundation and SuperRare.

When did you first get into architecture?

I was fortunate when I was younger to find my passion really early. I decided I wanted to go into architecture freshman year of high school. Because I was into Legos, and that led me into Minecraft. And freshman year, I would just draw floor plans of buildings and elevations and just design buildings which then led to playing Minecraft and designing things to build. It wasn’t even a game looking back at it, it was just like 3D modeling. I would just build, like, museums and castles. Yeah, from an early age I knew I was into the built environment, buildings, architecture.

When did you first have the idea for Rowhomes and Highrises?

As early as 2017 I had an image that kind of looked like the Rowhomes collection. And then there was another one in 2020, that was even more that style, where I removed a neighboring house and isolated the home and removed the distractions. And when I made that, I didn’t know that it was going to be a collection. I just thought, “Oh man, that’d be kind of a compelling visual if I found a super cool house in Philly and then put it on its own so it was this character standing alone.” And then the idea for the collection came summer of 2021 when it was released. 

I released my first NFTs on Foundation and then it was right at the time photography collections started to be popular. Before that time, photographers were doing one-of-one, just like Foundation, individual images. And then all of a sudden, one person did a collection: it sells out. The next person does a collection: it sells out. Collections were the thing everybody was doing, and I already felt this desire to do collections before NFTs because I just felt like doing random one-of-one images was just getting burned out and I think collections are a great way to create a more cohesive body of work and to really explore a theme rather than just make an image. So I had the idea and developed it just over the course of a week, maybe two weeks between having the idea, experimenting with editing, and going out shooting the first 30 of them. But it was crazy. Just every waking hour I was either photographing, researching, editing, and putting together this collection.

How did you first hear about NFTs?

Maybe around the winter of 2021, but maybe a little earlier, too. Just some people DM’d me about it because I have an audience on Instagram, and I make a certain type of work. It was like three people maybe that reached out separately. They were like, “Hey, have you heard of NFTs? I think your work might work well here.” My brother is included in that, who is older than me and is into tech and stuff. He was like, “Hey, check this out.” So I kind of passively looked at it and read about it and tried to understand it, but wasn’t inclined enough to really jump into it. Until my friend Josh in Philly sold his first NFT for 2.5 Ethereum [around $5,000 at the time] and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s more money that I’ve ever seen like a photo sell for.” And he was kind of in my inner circle at that point, so it was like, “Oh, this is a real thing, people I know are actually doing this, so let’s give it a try.”

For Rowhomes, did you know anything about the houses you visited beforehand?

No, not really. Some of them seemed visibly abandoned, while others didn’t seem abandoned. But I looked into it. Like, am I allowed to take pictures of people’s houses? So I looked at it from that angle, like, am I invading people’s privacy? And I didn’t talk to any of the Rowhome owners, but occasionally people in the neighborhoods would ask me what I’m doing because I’d just be riding my bike around taking photos. And every time that happened, I would just show them the project and got very positive feedback from what I’m doing.

Rowhome #1 (Courtesy Chris Hytha)

How did you locate these homes?

It was a mix of just randomly biking around in different neighborhoods and finding them on Google Earth. I always shot on overcast days to keep the lighting consistent. So if it was a sunny day, and I couldn’t shoot, I would just be in Google Earth and Google Street View just looking around for little gems, like really unique houses that have quirky or different architectural features. Or houses that are covered in ivy, like whatever is like unique or interesting. You can quickly look at a ton of different houses just on Google.

Why make a collection about Rowhomes?

I live in a row home now in West Philadelphia. My parents’ business is real estate so I convinced them to buy a property that was abandoned here in West Philly and it still is a house that works perfectly for the Rowhomes collection. When they bought it, it was just this derelict home, abandoned, all the windows broken, full of trash. And I did the architectural plans for it and helped renovate it. So in that sense, I’m really connected with row homes. And I love the idea of preserving their architectural character and fixing them up, too. 

There’s this whole larger narrative of how developer construction now is kind of shitty and it’s built for like 20 years, maybe 30 or 40, just light stick frame, wood construction with cheap cladding. And there’s just something about these houses. Most of the row homes built in 1920, even the house I grew up in, it’s a single but the same kind of like row home format, it was built in 1890, but these houses are just solid. The old lumber is for one, dimensionally thicker than it is now; and it’s old growth wood so it’s stronger. The brick walls are just indestructible. So these houses are just super interesting because they’ve been around so long because they’re super well built. 

And then also the row homes become symbolic of the ebbs and flows of time and culture. And that’s one thing I really liked about the collection, particularly in neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion, where the houses have been around for like 100 years. They tell the story of the city. It used to be one of the wealthiest neighborhoods with this big Jewish population and a lot of synagogues. So the architecture reflected that, and the architecture is super ornate with these turrets and all of this detail. But then the fate of many US cities, especially the East Coast with deindustrialization, all the jobs left because the factories closed because manufacturing moves to China. And then suburbia and cars become super accessible and important so that anyone who has the means moves out of the city. You know, a lot of cities like Philly, Baltimore, Buffalo have lost half of their population. So in a lot of ways, these row homes are symbolic of these larger cultural movements. 

So long answer, but there’s a lot of things that are fascinating to me about row homes. To elaborate a little bit more, too, I like the idea of a consistent typology. It’s a word we use in architecture, a lot of framework. So for row homes, they’re all generally the same, they’re all connected, and they’re separated by brick party walls. They’re either two or three stories. They share similar characteristics of the way the cornices are articulated, the common motifs of turrets, and of dormers, and have mansard roofs. So there’s this format and formula. And then within that, there’s all kinds of variety. So that’s what worked really well for the collection, that I could keep some variables the same like the composition, the color schemes, removing the distractions, having a single house instead of multiple houses. And then the variable is just the unique character, like what makes this house special and interesting, you know?

Was one of your first projects renovating the row home you currently live in?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, I’ve been designing and building things through my life because my dad is in construction. He was always building things as I was growing up. So I would help him put up walls, help him frame things, not super intensively. But I knew I was going into architecture. So I would help him when I could. I designed some stuff for a kitchen renovation at my parents house and just like little things here and there. My uncle is an architect too. So yeah, definitely largely inspired by my dad and uncle. They would have an idea and then he would draw it and I’d see all the drawings, which would look super cool, hand-drawn architectural plans and elevations, and then my dad would build them. So to just see that process of creation was super, super cool. And I definitely followed in their footsteps.

What was your reaction to seeing your pieces sell?

It was ridiculous. I didn’t expect anything. I think the key to happiness is low expectations, right? Because then you’re not disappointed by anything. And the first 30 [images that made up the initial NFT collection], I didn’t know that I would do more. I thought maybe it would just be the 30. But it was super successful, so I continued doing it. Yeah, it was surreal. 

And the pricing just keeps going up. But the first round of 30 they were priced at around $500 per Rowhome. And there were 30. They sold out in like, two minutes, or three minutes or something, which was mind-blowing. It was like, as an artist, I started selling prints very early in. In my photography career, I started selling them at $20. And eventually, worked my way up to selling them for 100 bucks, which still is relatively reasonable for fine art prints. But this I mean, it was in a day making the same amount of money that I had made for the past six years in my art, which is like, absurd. Or it’s absurd that art is so undervalued that I didn’t make much at all before NFTs. And in a lot of ways now, I like to think of it getting paid back for years and years and years of making next to nothing, spending hundreds of hours working on my craft and going out and taking photos because I love it, not making any money. And this past year has been crazy successful with NFTs. But if you distribute that money across the past six or seven years of making art, it’s just a normal kind of salary. So it’s an interesting way of looking at it.

Highrise #1 (Courtesy Chris Hytha)

What do you see in the future for these collections?

I’m not sure. I think a lot about my long-term plan or lack thereof. It’s kind of scary because I was gonna go into architecture, and then NFT’s happened, and this incredible opportunity presented itself. And now I’m not going into architecture full time, at least not for the time being. So I mean, in general, I just keep things flexible to be able to pursue opportunities. 

But long term with my collections, I would love to continue doing this work. I see it as like urban analysis right now, this way of picking a subject that’s really fascinating to me and then learning about it through the images I create. I learned so much about the row homes typology, and the types of row homes, and how row homes look different in West Philadelphia from North Philadelphia. And this vast spectrum of conditions that the row homes are in, the temporal nature of how some of them I would find on Google and then they’d be demolished. And now I’m doing a lot of work trying to organize with some nonprofits in the area to fix up row homes and to help with tangled titles, which is a big problem facing a lot of people with homeownership when they don’t legally own the house because their parents or grandparents died without transferring the title. So I’ve learned about all facets of row homes, and I think that’s wonderful. And I’ve been able to share that with other people. 

Now Highrises, I’m able to share this wealth of architectural sophistication from the 1920s, this different time in America. And that project has a whole other agenda and symbolism and the ‘20s. The Roaring ‘20s were just a different time and I almost see it as just the peak of American architecture, there’s eagles carved into stone and so proud. So then moving forward, I’m really fascinated with urban poles, which is very different from the rest of these projects. But telephone poles and stop signs, just these poles in the city. Just a weird thing to me that I’m trying to unpack. So that could be another collection. But yeah, I’m just building this body of work of my unique vision of the world and trying to share the beauty in the world, too. 

Through Highrises and Rowhomes, I am basically just using my talents as an artist to show people something that I’m really interested in. Long before the Rowhomes collection, I’ve been looking at all of these homes and all of the details and the different textures of paint and brick and stucco and these layers of time on these houses. So now I’m just sharing that with everyone else. So yeah, long story short, I just want to keep making art like this that is showing my perception of the world.

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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