Girard Hall: Charmingly Grungy, With an Uncertain Future.
It’s almost impossible to notice Girard Hall if you’re walking past it on the street, but hidden inside one of the many nondescript brick exteriors on Girard Avenue is this cavernous hub of creative energy.
Altrez isn’t sure how to fashion his title, as Girard Hall isn’t a place for official names, but he’s been in charge of operations there for a year and a half.
Girard Hall stands in the Philadelphia tradition of DIY venues but easily sets itself apart by its size alone. Rather than cramming folks into a dripping basement, Girard Hall welcomes visitors to a warehouse-sized space that’s ready to be transformed for any purpose.
Altrez takes the stairs from the street up to the second-floor space and walks into the high-ceilinged, cathedral-like interior. There’s a full stage set in front of a wall-length mirror. Disco balls hang down, remnants of a past life for the building, like the sliding garage door that leads to Altrez’s “office” and recording studio.
There’s plenty of room in which to play around, and it’s all open to interpretation.
Girard Hall has been home to everything from hip-hop shows, noise festivals, Afro-Caribbean dance parties and off-beat performance art.
“It’s a raw space and you can mold it into anything you want to,” says Altrez.
Altrez, now 25, was new to the DIY scene when he first moved to Philadelphia five years ago to study industrial design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. At the time, the warehouse space was run by a collective of Temple film students who had the intention of turning it into a collaborative studio, with shows and exhibitions happening there only occasionally. The building had been known as Girard Hall through its many past incarnations (Altrez says with a laugh that it was a porn studio at one point).
As Altrez began to spend more of his time in the space, the original collective slowly went different ways. Having fallen in love with Girard Hall and its potential, Altrez stayed and continued to expand its original vision, booking larger pop-up shows with artists like Philly darlings The Districts or off-kilter rapper Slug Christ.
“What it is now is not what it was then,” Altrez explains.
Though it’s gained notoriety as a performance venue, Girard Hall has retained its identity as a creative studio. Six artists rent studio space, their respective laboratories tucked away in side rooms or at the top of the winding spiral staircase. A quick tour through the space will also find two makeshift recording studios, a homemade bookshelf and reading area, and a loft with one lonely drum kit that any artist passing through is welcome to knock around.
Jordan Smith, 28, uses Girard Hall to create ambient music scores under the moniker J. Galleo, but also books metal shows there.
“Everybody falls in love with the space as soon as they walk in,” Smith says.
Metal bands love the space for its acoustics, he explains. The massive room makes it so bands don’t even have to mic their drums. Even though shows he books at Girard Hall have ranged from a crowd of 100 to just the bands playing for one another, Smith says draw has never been a concern for the venue.
“The spot is here for creative people of any make,” he says. “You can’t exclude certain things because it makes less money.”
Sofiya Ballin felt similarly welcomed when she packed the place out with WUK, her Afro-Caribbean dance party. The 24-year-old resident of North Philadelphia had visited her parents’ native Trinidad for Carnival and wanted to bring that festive atmosphere back to Philly. Her partner in the event, Mathos Sokolo, knew just the place.
“[Girard Hall] had that homey, basement, in-the-cut vibe, but it could hold like 300 people,” says Ballin, a former JUMP staffer who now writes features for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
That charmingly grungy feel is partly just what you get when you keep six artists together in the same space, and partly because the space is undergoing some minor renovations. Buckets of drywall sit under the stage, and brooms lean against the speakers.
Altrez says he is constantly trying to elevate the space to its next level. On Halloween, however, the city shut down the building and wouldn’t even let the residents back into the premises. Altrez says that he has no idea what will happen next but that he is committed to making the venue operational again.
“It’s a big space but without people, it’s nothing,” Altrez says.
It’s no small task for Altrez and company to make the place a legal venue but for Altrez, the reasons for doing so are simple.
“I don’t like to see wasted potential,” he says.