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Music

Transformations of Union Transfer

Forged metal trusses on soaring ceilings, elaborate teardrop chandeliers, terra cotta pediment, warm woodwork and intricate damask wallpaper comprise Union Transfer — a music hall that opened in 2011 and rocketed to the top of the list of best music venues in Philadelphia. The bi-level establishment sits on half a block of 11th and Spring Gardens Street. Indie bands including Bombay Bicycle Club and Phantogram have taken the stage at UT and local fans are anticipating shows with Bleachers, Interpol and Circa Survive in the next few months. But the venue hasn’t always been a concert hall: It had humble beginnings as a farmers market.

In an archived ad from the April 15, 1883 edition of The Sporting Life — one of Philadelphia’s weekly newspapers until the early 1920s — it reads “Edmund Maurer of No. 1026 Spring Garden street, Philadelphia, is prepared to furnish buyers with fine bred dogs of any kind.” Another ad from 1883 reveals that Maurer doubled his personal residence as a breeding facility where livestock was sold.

An ad reveals that Maurer doubled his residence at 1026 Spring Garden Street as a breeding facility.
In an ad from The Poultry Monthly, it is revealed that Union Transfer used to serve as a breeding facility for livestock.

In 1889, Spring Garden Farmers Market opened at that same address on Spring Garden Street and to this day, the building still retains the signage that was carved into its side. There were dozens of small markets in Philadelphia at the time, and Spring Gardens was jointly financed and owned by a group of farmers and investors.

In 1918, the market shut down for undocumented reasons and the building was renovated into the Union Transfer Baggage Express Company, where bags and other items were kept in storage for American railway companies. In the years leading up to 1939 — the start of the World War II era — the German embassy in Philadelphia utilized the services of Union Transfer Baggage Company to store freight to be shipped all around the world.

According to Philadelphia Neighborhoods, the next step for the building was a boxing arena. Philadelphia has a rich history in boxing — no, not including the actor boxer who inspired the infamous “Rocky” steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Olympic gold medalists Joe Frazier and Tyrell Biggs are from Philadelphia, in addition to world famous boxers like middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins.

The tire shop that once stood on Spring Garden Street. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Department of Records)
The tire shop that once stood on Spring Garden Street. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Department of Records)

For a time, it was a tire shop that lasted into the 1980s. It was only later in the 1980s when the building first served as a music venue. The legendary After Midnight Hip-Hop Night Club and Entertainment Complex stood there, showcasing a skating rink, a dance floor and a movie theater. MCs like Fresh Prince and Schoolly D performed there, and even rappers Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane and LL Cool J.

But the club was short-lived. When Philadelphia denied After Midnight a critical dance hall permit, it was shut down — a tragedy for hip-hoppers all around the city.

After the closing of After Midnight, the building was renovated into a more family-friendly environment. The earliest proof of a Spaghetti Warehouse’s existence is in a Daily Pennsylvanian ad from April 4, 1996. Home of America’s Most Incredible 15-Layer Lasagne, the Spaghetti Warehouse is an Italian chain that is known for renovating older, historic buildings into restaurants. But the restaurant on Spring Garden Street was closed and auctioned off on Saturday, January 29, 2011 by Barry S. Slosberg, Inc.

The beautiful bar at Union Transfer. (Photo courtesy of Google Maps)

And thus, Union Transfer was born. Avram Hornik and Mark Fichera of 4 Corners Management, R5 Productions’ Sean Agnew and Bowery Presents — the New York-based promotions company that operates clubs such as Bowery Ballroom, Music Hall of Williamsburg and Mercury Lounge — teamed up to renovate the building. The owners kept and restored most of the vintage pieces of the building, like the chandeliers, wood walls and ceiling trusses.

“Union Transfer is just so stunningly beautiful,” said Kayla Barnes, sophomore psychology major at Temple University in Philadelphia. “I think most college-aged people are so used to visiting Tower Theatre or The Electric Factory for shows, and honestly, those locations are dumps.” Barnes admires UT for the nostalgic touches owners included, such as a video projection of an old railroad station flipboard in the lobby that announces upcoming shows. “It’s industrial, but in a gorgeous way. I go to shows there at least twice a month and I’m always blown away by how — for lack of a better word — pretty it is!”

The stage at Union Transfer sits beneath metal trusses and chandeliers. (Photo courtesy of Google Maps)

The venue opened to the public on September 21, 2011 with a performance by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Poliça. Showcasing indie rock, electronic and hip hop acts, the intimate music hall has a capacity of 600 to 1,000 guests. The uniquely constructed stage can be moved up to 25 feet, depending on the performers’ preferences. Ticket prices range from $12 to $20.

“Part of the reason I love going to UT is because I can actually afford tickets there,” Barnes said. “There are so many music venues in Philly, but not many that are affordable for college students.”

Union Transfer is a premiere venue with a storied past. After serving as a home for a breeder, a farmers market, a baggage company, a boxing arena, a trust company, a tire center, a hip-hop club and an italian restaurant, the building at 1026 Spring Garden Street may have finally found a permanent occupation.

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