When events mega-company LiveNation approached Philadelphia design firm EwingCole about transforming the former Ajax Metal Company into a 3,000-person music venue and entertainment complex, it was a daunting proposition.
Today, $36 million later, that vision—the Fillmore Philadelphia—is a reality. But when designer Shannon Noon and architect Craig Schmitt first toured the building, erected in 1893, it was little more than a ruin. Once a foundry, last used to store munitions in the wake of World War II, the roof had long since caved when LiveNation acquired the site in 2012. Graffiti was everywhere. It was winter, and icicles hung from the interior.
“Excuse my language, but I thought, ‘Are you . . . crazy?’” Schmitt said in jest while speaking at a recent ULI Philadelphia event. “But this company took a vision and a lot of work . . . and got it done.”
There were other obstacles along the way to a product that is today one of the city’s most popular music destinations. Interior walls and industrial chimneys were suited for casting metal, not the flow of concertgoers or bar patrons. The roof was too low to accommodate the main stage and had to be raised. Neighbors were anxious about parking, and there were zoning overlays and stormwater management issues.
There also were the demands of their client, who now operate six Fillmore-branded venues across the United States, with a seventh on the way in New Orleans. Modeled off the iconic 1960s venue in San Francisco—which LiveNation acquired in 2007—the company has sought to marry the chandelier-and-psychedelia aesthetic of that theater with the local culture of other cities as the chain has expanded.
On a ULI Philadelphia–organized tour of the sprawling complex, Noon and Schmitt highlighted an “Instagrammable” version of Richard Indiana’s iconic “LOVE” sculpture, which sits adjacent to Philadelphia City Hall, tweaked to read “LIVE.” The box-office area is adorned with string lights overhead, reminiscent of blocks in south Philadelphia, which are sometimes festooned with Christmas lights by neighbors. Behind the venue’s bar is a massive rendition of the Betsy Ross flag formed from a collage of old Fillmore posters.
To that end, they also tried to preserve the character of the building itself. They salvaged and repurposed old loading doors to serve as the foundation for the main bar, turned an obtrusive chimney and steel girders into design elements, and left in place some of the old graffiti scrawled across interior walls.
“Philadelphia is also a gritty city,” Noon said. “So these were great finds. There were a lot of architectural elements to draw from and we tried to preserve as much of the existing structure as we could. . . . We had grit galore here.”
They went even further, designing and stenciling faux ghost signs to add character to blank walls, exposing structural beams long covered over by plaster and other materials.
LiveNation selected EwingCole because they had experience with distressed sites: They had worked with the promoter on restoring a venue on Long Island that was damaged during Hurricane Sandy.
There also were some tailwinds. The project was greased with historic tax credits. Despite concerns about parking and noise, some local neighbors and politicians alike were also eager to see a colossal blight removed from their community.
They were also joined by a team of LiveNation’s in-house designers and architect Janice Woodcock, of Woodcock Design, whom local developer Michael Samschick had hired to develop a vision for the site after he bought the Ajax property back in 2006.
A zoning case over the site would eventually head to state court, but ultimately developers agreed to include a 500-spot parking area with the larger project—the land around the Fillmore also hosts a brewery, distillery, bowling alley, comedy club, and restaurant.
Woodcock said the concession was needed to make such a large and ambitious project come to life. But, perhaps a sign of growing urban centers and declining car use, the lot is rarely full—most customers come from the nearby El train or in Uber.
“Many people don’t drive,” she said. “This is an urban site.”