John Grass Wood Turning Company Lament

“The history of the John Grass Wood Turning Company points out the great

changes that have taken place in the manufacturing process over the past century and a

half. The fact that the structure and machinery are in essentially the same place and

condition as when the firm was founded is remarkable. Both the skill and the work-ethic

of the men involved are also a part of the story. We are stronger in going ahead if we

know where we have been.

The challenge to preserve the John Grass site with all its components is a serious

one and is not to be taken lightly. Today’s method of computer-controlled mass

production of wood turned objects is a far cry from what was the norm at the time when

the John Grass Wood Turning Company was a flourishing industry in the Old City

District of Philadelphia. Without action at this time, this part of our industrial history will

more or less disappear, only to be read about in books.”

Jane Mork Gibson, John Grass Wood Turning Company Historical Background

The quote above are the concluding remarks of an essay written c. 2008 by Jane Gibson which appears on a website of the John Grass Task Force, a group connected with the Center for Art in Wood that sought to preserve the building and contents of the John Grass Wood Turning Company, located at 146 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia, which had ceased business operations in 2003. A timeline of the John Grass Turning Company on the same site ended with this:

“2010 – The Philadelphia Chapter of the United Carpenters and Joiners of America, one of the earliest supporters of the Center’s John Grass efforts, purchased the building and all of its equipment from the descendants of John Grass who owned the facility. This purchase ensures that the Center’s efforts to both preserve and raise awareness about the Grass building have contributed to its future rehabilitation and use. Stay tuned for future update.”

There have been no further updates to the site but the final chapter of the history of the John Grass Wood Turning Company can now be written. Earlier this year the Philadelphia Chapter of the United Carpenters and Joiners of America sold the building at 146 North 2nd Street and last Friday September 15, 2017, the contents of the building was sold at auction to a single bidder. Unfortunately, this is another disgrace for the cause for preservation in Philadelphia where the pressure from developers has been assuring the rapid destruction of the historic fabric of the city. The John Grass Wood Turning Company building is now next in line and only waits for the removal of the contents to be razed. What happened between 2006 when the John Grass Task Force was created and today? And why did the sale of the building and the dispersal of its contents receive zero press when it was one of the most remarkable survivors of the city’s industrial past, a city at one time known as The Workshop of the World? At the auction preview the Thursday before the sale, it appeared I was the only one who showed up for one last look.

The history of the John Grass Company can be found on several sites listed below so I won’t go into detail of the company’s history here except to say John Grass immigrated from Bavaria in 1853 at age 15 and first appears in the city directories as a wood turner in 1872. The company moved the North 2nd Street address in 1916.

Click to go to the link.

Historical Background by Jane Mork Gibson

Hidden City Philadelphia

Save John Grass on Youtube

Below are a selection of my photos of the exterior of the John Grass Wood Turning Co. made in 2009 and interior images made September 15, 2017.

5 thoughts on “John Grass Wood Turning Company Lament

  1. Thank you for posting this news, although I’m very unhappy to learn about the loss of the John Grass Wood Turning collection and building. I bet no one in the preservation community knew about the sale of the collection or the building of it would have gotten a lot more press.

  2. Hard to say who knew what and when. It’s been on the radar of preservationist for some time and received a new round of publicity with the Hidden City tours of the building/shop several years ago. Two months have now gone by and to my knowledge the story still has not been picked up on by the commercial press.

  3. I’m really disappointed Hidden City or the Preservation Alliance or whoever has not picked up on this story – why do I only learn about this on December 4, via a post by the Oliver Evans Chapter of SIA, and therefore months after the contents of the building were sold at auction? and I’m also disappointed by the Carpenters and associated trades – my husband’s late father was a member of the carpenter’s union and he would be appalled seeing them spend plenty of money on their fancy building on Spring Garden and various lobbying efforts while neglecting the history of their trade. And I will certainly never again set foot into the Center for Art in Wood – what a disgrace to finance that showcase while letting the John Grass Wood Turning Company be dismantled. There should be enough money in this city to sustain both the actual manufacturing site and the exhibit space/gift store. I regret ever buying anything in that store – I thought I was supporting a good cause, but I was wrong.

  4. I was at the auction and worked with the buyer of the contents to bring pieces from John Grass into my shop. I now have and use their workbenches and other things.

    I was very upset about all that happened and didn’t happen but I think some of your will at least be somewhat comforted by who some of us are and where a lot of things went:

    – a number of machines and workstations went to the unions museum
    – I let a bunch of woodworker friends know about this and they came in with me and picked up things for their shop
    – the person who bought the contents has a custom turning shop in the Lancaster area and is currently using a number of the machines
    – other machines and most of the line shaft went to a rail road museum to be installed and used in their period designed machine and workshop

    I am a preservationist at heart but I understand that not everything can be saved no matter how special. The John Grass situation was very difficult. It seems that the money needed to renovate that building and turn it into a safe structure to serve as a museum could not be secured. If I remember correctly, the union members told me it was something like $15 million plus and nobody was coming up with the money for it. So this happened.

    All I can say is that I am happy that like minded people got in there and that many of the machines and benches were not “repurposed” into tables and other home decor elements.

  5. Maria Sturm – I think you’re conflating two organizations. The Center for Art is Wood was founded in 1986 by Albert LeCoff to celebrate and promote wood art – originally just art turned on a lathe (they were originally named the Wood Turning Center). It was always an educational organization that presented symposia and exhibitions. They added a permanent gallery space and gift shop in 2005 after moving into their first permanent location at 501 Vine St. They moved to their current location on N 3rd street in 2011.

    When it was discovered in 2004 that the John Grass Wood Turning Company shuttered (the last owner, John Bower, was personal friends with Albert LeCoff, who retired because of health/age issues), Albert realized the significance and value of an intact 19th century factory in the heart of Philadelphia and formed the all-volunteer John Grass Task Force to try to figure out how to save the building and its contents in an intact form. It’s important to note that the Center for Art in Wood’s mission is NOT preservation and that as a non-profit educational organization dependent on donations and grants, have limited financial means to stray from their mission.

    After years of discussion with various funders, city officials, architects, structural engineers, preservationists, lawyers, and the Carpenters Union, it was determined that the funds required to turn the building into a living museum simply didn’t exist – not in state grants, not in city grants, not in federal grants, not in corporate grants, not in private donations. The Carpenter’s Union then, out of a desire to assist the initiative with their limited means, purchased the building to hold it in stasis while further preservation attempts could develop. Don’t forget this all happened right before the real-estate bubble popped in 2008, at which point banks effectively stopped loaning money. It’s a miracle the Carpenters Union held onto the property as long as they did – an expensive liability on their books (the building was determined to be structurally unsound and had to have jacks installed to keep the roof from caving in).

    I only just today discovered that the Carpenters Union finally sold the building in 2017. While I understand and share your frustration that the John Grass Wood Turning Company building is now desecrated, it is not the fault of the Center for Art in Wood or its leadership. In fact, the Center should be praised for attempting to save the John Grass Wood Turning Company when no one else was interested in taking on the cause – remember preservation of our industrial heritage is not their mission. Instead, the loss of this historic factory represents the failure of our community, city, and state to value our industrial past and a lack of funding to make such preservation possible. We also shouldn’t ignore the fact that this particular building was in a terribly deteriorated state and would have been extremely expensive to rehabilitate.

    Full disclosure: I worked for the Center for Art in Wood as Director of Operations and Design from 2004-2008 and was involved administratively in the John Grass Task Force.

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