An artful fix for a ramshackle Fairmount space

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Sandi Pierantozzi and Neil Patterson bought 2034 Fairmount Avenue in 2000 for $40,000. Since their arrival, Fairmount has experienced a steady influx of businesses.

'One of the ugliest façades known to man" is how Patricia Blakely, executive director of the Merchants Fund, described the property at 2034 Fairmount Ave. in Philadelphia.

It was a storefront that screamed, "Get lost!"

The inside wasn't any better. "It was filled with trash," Sandi Pierantozzi said. "People were squatting with cats."

She and her husband, Neil Patterson, bought it anyway.

As artists - professional visionaries, if you will - these potters saw potential amid the rubbish.

As nearby residents, they were tired of the crosstown commute to their Old City studio and the three-floor climb up to it.

The place on Fairmount Avenue offered opportunity for a first-floor studio, even if the view was of the Gothic-style block walls of Eastern State Penitentiary across the street.

Not that the structure Pierantozzi and Patterson bought in 2000 for $40,000, once a hair salon with an apartment upstairs where the property's owner lived, allowed for much of a view. Its street-level front was a wall of aluminum siding, the only daylight provided from a horizontal window, more like a glass door turned sideways, halfway up. The second- and third-floor frontage was original red brick from the 1800s, hidden by stucco.

It was an eyesore, but it didn't exactly stand out: Half the block was boarded up at the time, Pierantozzi said. So she and Patterson got to work making the inside bearable.

That required ripping out ceilings, repairing split support beams, and installing new electrical wiring, plumbing and lighting. In September 2000, they relocated their pottery business, which includes workshops in a second-floor classroom. (On the third floor is an apartment.)

They adopted the name Neighborhood Potters, because that's what locals called them.

That less-than-inviting storefront did not get the couple's attention until August 2013, when an official from Spring Garden Community Development Corp. alerted them to a grant pool for owner-occupied businesses. Soon after, Pierantozzi and Patterson learned of Merchants Bank, which provides grants to small businesses.

Since Neighborhood Potters' arrival, Fairmount Avenue between 19th and 20th Streets has experienced a steady influx of businesses, including restaurants, a pet store, a bike shop, a pharmacy, a water-ice vendor, and a gift store.

For Pierantozzi and Patterson to have started any earlier on improving their street presence would have been pointless, said Merchants Bank's Blakely, a 25-year resident of Fairmount.

"A pretty window would not have generated sales because there was little foot traffic," she said. "Today, there are restaurants, shops . . . the prison [now a tourist attraction featuring Al Capone's cell] generates huge traffic. Now, it makes sense to have curb appeal and see if they can sell some of their work and become a more visible business.

"It has also become safer to have glass instead of the bunker that they purchased."

Merchants Bank contributed $10,000 toward a $65,000 facelift, featuring a triple-arch Queen Anne-style window, a glass-and-mahogany door, and walls of recycled 1800s brick. Work started in March and ended earlier this month.

A grand reopening is planned Friday. (Details at www.neighborhoodpotters.com)

Along with Merchants Bank's grant and about $30,000 from Spring Garden CDC, $10,000 came from the Storefront Improvement Program administered by Philadelphia's Commerce Department.

The program, which has funded 432 projects since its inception in 2009, was in a state of suspended animation in the spring while community- and economic-development groups lobbied Mayor Nutter to include $535,000 in general funds for it in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. He did, and City Council passed the $3.9 billion spending plan in June.

Eligible business owners can receive grants of 50 percent of improvement costs up to $10,000 for a single commercial property, $15,000 for a multiple-address or corner-business property. (To apply, go to http://www.phila.gov/commerce/neighborhoods/Pages/RevitalizingCorridors.aspx.)

In a community that has been so welcoming of Neighborhood Potters, the new look is meant, in part, as a thank you, the owners said. They put up about $10,000 toward it, not counting work they did themselves.

"This, we feel, is a gift for future generations," Patterson said.


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull