Philadelphia artist Jacob Hellman sees beauty and life in vacant homes, instead of just crumbling foundations of a long-forgotten residences that now languish on a city block.
Many row homes, the historical infrastructure of the city’s original living spaces, are decaying without so much as a final word or one quickly snapped family photo before a move. However, this spring, with the help of a commemoration project titled “A Funeral for a Home,” the story of one of those houses in the Mantua section of the city will have the opportunity to be told.
Thus far, the Mantua community has participated directly with A Funeral for a Home, which strives to honor the “life,” or rather the history, of a house – not only with the funeral process itself, but also in recognizing and promoting the idea that one building can have a profound impact on a neighborhood.
The idea to start the project was sparked by a combination of attendees at a meeting of the advisory council for Temple Contemporary and the work of Hellman. Seth Bruggeman, an associate professor of public history at Temple, is involved in the project as a consulting historian. Temple Contemporary, a branch of the Tyler School of Art that aims to reimagine the social applications and impact of art, was previously known as Temple Gallery and began in the 1980s.
The program was reopened in 2009, featuring a 3,400-square-foot gallery within the Tyler building.
A Funeral for a Home is funded by a grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, a first for Temple Contemporary.
“Housing was something that the advisory council here at Temple Contemporary wanted to address,” Patrick Grossi, the manager and public historian of A Funeral for a Home, said.
An event hosted by Hellman was all it took to gain attention for the project, which at the time was in its beginning stages.
“We learned that there was an artist, [Hellman], who held a funeral to honor a house with some of his friends,” Robert Blackson, the director of Temple Contemporary, said. “From there, we decided to get involved with him and a few other artists.”
After scouring the city to find a house that was already in the condemnation process, Blackson, Grossi and other project members settled on the house in Mantua between 40th Street and the Schuylkill River.
Though the “funeral” will focus on this house, Blackson said the goal is not to raise awareness in Mantua alone, but to shed a light on the distressed housing situation across the city.
“We’re bringing [the neighborhood] together to think about these issues in a creative way,” Blackson said. “So it doesn’t just become the picture of the house with the broken window.”
Collaborating artist brothers Steven and Billy Dufala, who are contributing to the artistic efforts of A Funeral for a Home, also said they want this project to be a celebration of unity and life.
“We are working more specifically on the design process,” Billy Dufala said. “The details are not planned out yet because we still need to work with the neighborhood, but whether it’s draping the house in white linen or placing flowers around, we want to invite members of the community to get involved.”
Leading up to the main event, the project is set to host a series of small, open programs the group hopes will continue to open people’s eyes to the bigger picture.
The first of these events will be held at the Cannon Funeral Home in Northeast Philadelphia on Nov. 19. It will be open to all members of the community who are interested in learning about the process and history of honoring those who have passed away.
“The funeral directors there have welcomed us in, and it’s a public event where they will be talking about the day-to-day responsibilities of maintaining a funeral home in a big city,” Grossi said.
With outreach into the community expanding, Grossi also said that through his research he hopes to bring the history of the house, as well as the history of the people who have been touched by it, to the forefront.
“One of my primary roles as a public historian for the project is doing oral histories with residents and thinking about ways in which we can present historical material out in Mantua,” Grossi said. “This means figuring out how to take the life and energy of the gallery and move it outdoors.”
Members of the Mantua Civic Association, specifically the organization’s president DeWayne Drummond, have also played a significant role in the expansion of A Funeral for a Home.
“I think this is something that people all over the city have an affinity with,” Blackson said. “Our work in Mantua is to involve the residents living around that home and the former residents that lived in that home.”
Mantua residents and beyond will also able to go to an interactive website, FuneralForAHome.org, where they can submit personal stories about houses they lived in or grew up around in their neighborhoods.
To the people involved in the project, it is not simply about demolishing an old house. The experience has become more personal.
“We’re trying to create a moment that doesn’t typically exist when demolishing homes,” Grossi said. “I think that there is value in taking a step back to recognize, not just the history of a particular home and the people who lived in it, but the process of these homes going up and coming down over the decades.”
Alexa Bricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.