article-imageInstallation by Ben Neiditz and Zach Webber at Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia (photograph by Allison Meier)

Places tend to be forgotten when their function disappears, and there’s no reason to engage with their space. The Hidden City Festival in Philadelphia, happening through June 30, is not just opening nine overlooked sites, many which have been abandoned or long locked to the public, but initiating new experiences to connect people to these lost locations.

The six-week festival launched in 2009 and returned this year, although Hidden City has a web magazine and tours throughout the year in unexpected places all over Philadelphia. Atlas Obscura took a field trip down to the festival last week to explore some of the 2013 sites, and their forgotten history. 


article-imageCabin in the woods (photograph by Allison Meier)

Fort Mifflin on Mud Island dates back to the Revolutionary War, although it was totally wrecked by the British in 1777 in an attack that had a rate of a thousand cannonballs falling an hour onto the fort. However, it was rebuilt over the years, and even if Mud Island isn’t much of an island anymore with the airport and other development, it still feels wild with overgrowth and an abundance of birds. 

For Hidden City, area artists Ben Neiditz and Zach Webber built tree houses, cabins, and other secrets to discover in the forested area just outside the fort on the Delaware River. It had something of the wish fulfillment of childhood, with the structures you’d imagine built from scraps of wood realized (with better structural integrity), and the discovery of getting lost in a strange woods. In one area there was a creepy cabin filled with twigs, and in a dark tunnel two skeletal figures twined from twigs sat in dark corners waiting to be discovered by flashlights. We probably missed some things in the dense area, but at the summit of the hill was an unmissable view from a small house with a parapet looking to the city skyline. 

article-imageExperiencing the tree house (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

View from the tree house (photograph by Allison Meier)

article-imageLurking twig figure (photograph by Allison Meier)

Bridge over washed-up trash (photograph by Allison Meier)

Grass shelter, which had a floor of shells (photograph by Allison Meier)

Tree house hiding in the trees (photograph by Allison Meier)


article-image Storefront synagogue (photograph by Allison Meier)

The Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Israel storefront synagogue was once a thriving part of the large Jewish community in South Philadelphia, but as that local community moved to other parts of the city, so did the congregation dwindle until it could be counted on one hand. Now Hidden City is including it to get attention to its over a hundred year history, which goes back to its establishment in 1909. The festival is hosting a “Radical Jewish Music” series there, and on the second floor is the ADMK Knit Lab, where participants can help knit a giant quilt to cover the whole front of the building.  

article-imageHistoric memorial lights with plaques in Hebrew (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

article-imageView from a door that opened up on the second floor, where women would once attend the service (photograph by Allison Meier)

Banner in the synagogue (photograph by Allison Meier)

Tenement at the top of the building, where visiting rabbis would stay (photograph by Allison Meier)


article-imageThe Athenaeum (photograph by Allison Meier)

The idea of Athenaeums, which were association-based lending libraries, has almost entirely disappeared, but Philadelphia’s has been operated since 1814. It doesn’t look like much from the outside on Washington Square, but the interior is an absolutely gorgeous space in an elaborate Italianate Revival style. The two floors of bookcases in the library have glass doors, and there’s even an old drinking fountain where water was filtered through a stone. 

In the chess room for the Hidden City Festival, artist Ruth Scott Blackson is presenting her project on the home of Edgar Allan Poe, all based on a curious book she came across at the Athenaeum that described the details of Poe’s Seventh Street house with only text, no images. Using a variety of sources, from a vintage color wheel to a dictionary of every word of Poe’s writing, she made her own books recreating the colors of each room with lines of his poetry and stories. 

article-imageGuest book for the Athenaeum, with Poe stopping by on November 19, 1838 (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

Index of every word in Poe’s works (photograph by Allison Meier)

The front of one of Blackson’s books (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

“In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awakening.” (photograph by Allison Meier)

The Athenaeum doesn’t just have books, they have an interesting collection of art and objects as well, including a whole display of Napoleonic items. Here’s an inkwell of Napoleon in his coffin. (photograph by Allison Meier)


article-imageJohn Grass Wood Turning Company (photograph by Allison Meier)

Apparently Philadelphia was quite the early hub for manufacturing, and remarkably there’s a business that’s relatively unchanged since it was started in the 19th century. The John Grass Wood Turning Company was opened by a Bavarian immigrant named John Grass in 1863, and it stayed open until 2003. 

Much of it looks like it did decades ago, and for the Hidden City Festival you can even see the wood turning techniques in action, which can make everything from bowling pins to flag poles. 


article-imageNew sign on the old Globe Dye Works (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

Philadelphia is full of underused, or abandoned, industrial relics, but one is experiencing a second life as artist lofts and new manufacturing space, and temporarily for Hidden City as an unusual art space. 

Inside the boiler room of the building, which functioned as a dyeing, bleaching, and winding of cotton yarns plant between 1865 and 2005, the Dufala Brothers have created some fantastic installations that at first blend into the setting. Then you realize that the crazy duct work on the wall couldn’t possibly be real, that there are way, way too many colorful tubes coming out of that machine, and that a nearby boiler is made of cardboard. Each installation had a bit of panic to it, like something had gone awry that someone was trying to quickly fix and only ended up making it worse. Unfortunately, the installations aren’t likely to be permanent, but I hope that the Dufala Brothers can at least find a home for the curving air duct in some unsuspecting industrial space.

article-imageOld machines in Globe Dye Works (photograph by Allison Meier)

article-imageArt intervention by the Dufala Brothers (photograph by Allison Meier)

article-imageAir duct insanity courtesy the Dufala Brothers (photograph by Dylan Thuras)


article-imageThe Historical Society of Frankford (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

The Historical Society of Frankford is another one of those places that seems like a rather dry, dusty history museum focused on obscure neighborhood history, but then you descend into its basement where there is a veritable wunderkammer of mechanical toys, old firefighting equipment, Victorian bell jars of whole flocks of taxidermy birds, and examples of old trolley mechanics.

In a project called “A/V Archaeology,” Data Garden and some collaborators created sound pieces for Hidden City that imagine what parts of this eclectic collection would sound like, from those preserved birds to a case of ladies’ fans to a pile of wax cylinders. It was all a more interesting cacophony than you would expect. The tapes they play on are meant to degrade over the weeks of the installation as a comment on the passage of time and its vanishing memories.

article-imageInside the historical society (photograph by Allison Meier)


article-imageKelly Natatorium (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

As mentioned before, many of the sites have been abandoned or locked for years, and the Kelly Natatorium is one of those that’s opened just for the festival. Located in Fairmount Park, it was part of the Fairmount Water Works started in the 19th century. It was closed in 1909, and then reimagined as an aquarium, and then later a swimming pool (although its concrete design left many teeth chipped). 

The “Bibotorium” with the Hidden City Festival is aimed at realizing a 1920s plan to turn part of the Fairmount Water Works into an interactive space to learn about water-filtering boats. While that never came true, there are now artist boats being built in the space and you can discuss water issues while sipping on tea served in plastic bags (perhaps an allusion to the fish who once swam in the space). 

article-imageBuilding a boat (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

article-imageFairmount Water Works in the park (photograph by Allison Meier) 


article-imageRabid Hands installation in Hawthorne Hall (photograph by Allison Meier)

The Fort Mifflin tree houses and the installation at Hawthorne Hall were definitely the highlights of the Hidden City Festival for their use of the space and instilling in visitors a sense of discovery. While at Fort Mifflin you got lost in the woods, here you got lost in the occult. The Rabid Hands art collective — composed of artists from Brooklyn, New Orleans, and Detroit — transformed the former club space into the homebase of the Society of Pythagoras, a secret society full of arcane rituals practiced in hidden chambers reached through secret passageways. 

It was absolutely amazing to explore, and the details were captivating. A crazy dining table over a hole in the floor was some incredibly structured mania, and a small room reached by climbing a ladder hidden under a pyramid offered a space for meditation and movement. All of the installation was built from materials found either in the building or around Philadelphia, and the more you explored the more the strange spirituality of the fictional society and their traditions was revealed. I could imagine going to the space multiple times and finding more and more secrets. And that’s really the whole idea behind the Hidden City Festival — showing that these aren’t just places to visit once and forget, but places to return to and rediscover what they mean to the city’s history, and what they can mean now.

article-imageTopsy-turvy dining table (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

Hawthorne Hall staircase (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

article-imagePortrait of a society member (photograph by Allison Meier)

Hall of portraits (photograph by Allison Meier)

Closet of mystery (photograph by Dylan Thuras)

Investigating the Society of Pythagorus (photograph by Allison Meier)

Drawer of secrets (photograph by Allison Meier)

Ritual room, built by artist Serra Fels (photograph by Allison Meier)

article-imageSecret room of meditation (photograph by Allison Meier)

article-imageExterior of Hawthorne Hall (photograph by Allison Meier)

Hidden City Festival 2013 is open through June 30 in Philadelphia.