The history in pictures of West Philadelphia's forgotten 'Flatiron building' | Inga Saffron

Thanks to the internet and social media outlets like Instagram, we have more opportunities than ever to view images of buildings and places we might never visit. But quantity shouldn’t be confused with quality. Those two-dimensional concentrations of pixels can tell us only so much.

Vincent Feldman’s large-format photographs of West Philadelphia architecture, on display at the Slought Foundation until June 5, have the power to make you see buildings as they really are. Shot in a dead-on, documentary-style, his portraits of the city’s neglected architectural treasures are so rich with detail and embedded history the buildings almost seem to have a soul.

Camera icon Vincent Feldman
Vincent Feldman took this photo of the George Institute Branch of the Free Library at 1461 N. 52nd St. in 2018.

Feldman first encountered the subjects in his Slought photographs as a child. Growing up at 63rd and Woodbine in West Philadelphia, he would pass buildings like the former George Institute Branch of the Free Library at the intersection of 52nd, Warren, and Bible Way, just south of Lancaster Avenue. Maybe because these places seeped into his consciousness long before he photographed them, the show, “Ours to Lose,” has an autobiographical quality. You feel as though  you had grown up with them, too.

The image of the George Institute stands out not just for its textures, but for the building’s unusual form. In Feldman’s composition, the library appears to be a sliver building, barely wide enough to accommodate its elaborate neoclassical entrance. In fact, the library is a wedge, similar to New York’s famous Flatiron Building, whose shape responds to the angles of the complex intersection. The little library gradually widens as it heads toward Lancaster Avenue.

Camera icon Inga Saffron / Staff
This is how the George Institute looks today.
Camera icon Inga Saffron / Staff
The rowhouse across from the George Institute also has a shaved corner facade.

Feldman likes to include the history of his subjects with his displays, and the accompanying wall text reveals that the George Institute was a gift of Jesse George, a descendent of one of Philadelphia’s original Quaker families, who later donated it to the Free Library. The design, completed in 1914, is by E. Allen Wilson (not to be confused with the Wilson Bros.), a skilled draftsman who was responsible for several buildings along the 52nd Street corridor. Despite the narrowness of the main facade, Wilson managed to pack all the basic, neoclassical elements of early 20th-century library design into his building, including a wide, ennobling staircase, pediment, and columns.

Camera icon Free Library of Philadelphia
This is how the interior of the branch looked in 1930.

In 2001, the Free Library shut down the branch, promising a renovation that never came. The closing has forced residents of the neighborhood — midway between West Parkside and Hestonville — to travel more than  a mile to the next nearest branch, at 52nd and Sansom. Feldman’s photograph hints at the social isolation wrought by the loss of such civic anchors. The young man who rests on the steps of the shuttered library cradling his dog appears overwhelmed by the vastness of the empty sidewalks. Just looking at your screen, you might never sense all that history and nuance in a lone building on a West Philadelphia corner.

The Slought Foundation, 4017 Walnut St., is ordinarily open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. But the gallery will be open  from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Feldman will give a short lecture about his work. Admission is free.

Camera icon Vincent Feldman
Vincent Feldman shot this view of the George Institute in 2005.