Agent Stories: Exploring Philly Arts Spaces With Niki Cousineau

Niki Cousineau approaches real estate the same way she approaches her practice as a dancer and choreographer – it’s all about space. Niki, a new agent with Solo, appreciates space in all of its forms. She brings this appreciation to her work as a realtor. Who better to help you find your next home than someone who sees the beauty in a whole range of unique spaces?


While the connection between dance and real estate might not be readily apparent, a deep emphasis on the spaces we inhabit is something shared by both. Recently Niki took us on a tour of some remarkable arts and performance spaces that most Philadelphians might not have access to normally. Take a look at our insider’s peek at Philly’s cool performance, arts, and practice spaces!


The Glass Factory


The first place Niki showed us is tucked away on a quiet side street in Brewerytown. From the outside you would never guess the amazing, cavernous space that lies within. Niki first discovered this space with the company she co-directs, Subcircle. Subcircle came to the Glass Factory with their show Hold Still while I figure this out in June 2016. That piece was more recently performed at FringeArts this past fall.


One thing that really stands out in the Glass Factory are the raw materials. While the space is simple, the signs of it’s past life as an auto shop give off a raw, edgy vibe. The exposed brick with phrases such as “Cars Washed” and “Brakes” painted on and the iron beams fit in with today’s popular post-industrial vibe. Meanwhile, the spacious stage and skylights add lightness and grace to the room.

While Niki discovered the Glass Factory through her dance and choreography work, the space hosts a wide array of events including music performances, martial arts classes, and art installations.

Subcircle performing at the Glass Factory


MAAS Building


The second location that Niki gave us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of was the MAAS Building. This brewery turned trolley repair shop in Olde Kensington is, coincidentally, just two doors down from our project Kensington Yards. Now the building is home to two offices on the ground floor, an events and practice space, a recording studio, a large garden courtyard behind the main building, and a private residence.

When owners Ben and Catherine first acquired the MAAS, it hadn’t been used since its days as a trolley shop. It’s because of this that so much of the original industrial workshop character is preserved. A floor was built to divide the building into two stories, and this diverse practice, performance, work, and home space was born.


While one of the most common uses of the upstairs space is actually weddings, Niki and her company Subcircle host their works in progress series and rehearse there. Other local groups that take advantage of this gorgeous, open space are Almanac Dance Circus Theatre and New Paradise Laboratories.

Subcircle in the second floor of the MAAS Building


Crane Arts


The last space Niki showed us was Crane Arts. Crane Arts is a well established place for artists’ studios and rental space in Olde Kensington. In more recent years they transitioned their Icebox Project Space to having a more structured public presence as well. The Icebox already existed as rental space in the Crane Arts building, in fact, Subcircle did their piece Still Unknown there in 2006. Now they host more regular performances, installations, and shows. With this expanded programming, Crane Arts moves beyond its role as a rental space. The directors are interested in expanding their scope and joining the conversation in Philly’s art community. 


Believe it or not, the Crane Arts building used to be a plumbing warehouse. After that a seafood packaging plant called the enormous building home. Between the shuttering of that business and its 2004 purchase, the building remained vacant. The Icebox, which we spent most of our visit in, was actually a giant walk-in freezer back in the days of the packaging plant, hence its name. Some of that original character is still noticeable in the large, blank space suitable for all sorts of performances and installations.


An edited photo from a Subcircle performance in the Icebox

Blocks We Love: 1800 West Girard Ave

Designed by Philadelphia architect Willis G. Hale in 1889, the houses at 1816-1834 West Girard Ave represent an iconic North Philadelphia style in the late 19th Century with ornate detailing, eccentric flair, and intriguing patterns.

The two sets of alternating mirror image pairs.

The houses are designed as sets of mirror image pairs that alternate between two facade variations. Each home shares some of the same qualities – three story construction done in brick with stone and wood trim, a triple pane window on the first floor with matching transoms, and a front door with a stone ogee arch frame and Tudor arched transom.

House numbers 1816-1818, 1824-1826, and 1832-1834 comprise the first form in the pattern with a third floor balcony and accompanying wrought-iron fencing set atop a second story bay window. Above the third floor windows and balcony are four blind Tudor arches.

Facade variation one with matching bay windows, balconies, and a quartet of Tudor style blind arches.

Setting the second variation in the pattern are the houses at 1820-1822 and 1828-1830 West Girard. These are constructed in a flatter format with a two bay facade arrangement on the second and third floors, continued from the first story. Each vertical pair of windows is separated by recessed panels and distinguished by diagonally laid bricks. The stringcourse along the bottom of the second story windows mirrors the continuous cornice line across the entire row. In contrast to the other facades in the series, these homes are topped with three blind ogee arches.

The second facade variation (top and bottom), with recessed panels, diagonally laid bricks, a blind ogee arch trio, and a continuous stone stringcourse along the second story windows.

Willis G. Hale, perhaps most widely known for his design of the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street, was favored by prominent Philadelphia street-car moguls Peter A. B. Widener and William L. Elkins which led to the architect’s choice position among the city’s nouveau riche.

These homes on the 1800 block of West Girard Ave, while notable for their exotic articulation and unique flourish, were likely inhabited by middle-class families, as suggested by their scale, typical of middle-class dwelling construction in the area during the late 19th century.

With the construction of Girard College between 1833-1847 and the prominence of horse car lines, this corridor began its rise as a busy and fashionable thoroughfare as early as the first half of the century. Not only was the juncture of Girard and Ridge Avenues significant commercially, the advent of cable and electric streetcars in the 1880s sealed the fate of Girard as a major transportation thoroughfare by the end of the century.

While much of the industry and commercial activity that dominated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has since departed the area, the five-way intersection is still a busy one today with high traffic Girard & Ridge Avenues and the 15 trolley line.

As construction for all classes also picked up in the 1880s, aided by the new ease of transportation and the presence of both civic institutions and industry jobs, the position of this block of houses at an increasingly busy and commercialized intersection helped maintain a vital commercial-civic-residential mix at this hub of the neighborhood.

A close-up of the unique arch style that adorns these houses.

Since these houses are protected on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places we don’t have to worry about losing their distinctive design, and it will be interesting to see what sort of uses and cosmetic fixes descend upon the series of rowhomes in the upcoming years. Given the changing landscape of the surrounding neighborhoods of Francisville,  Fairmount, and Brewerytown – with new construction, rehabilitation projects, and businesses flocking to the area – it will be exciting to watch how the architecture of Hale’s homes blends in with surrounding developments.

While new construction in the city more often than not reflects a departure from the understated grandeur of these late 19th century homes, perhaps the style and historic significance of the homes will bear influence on the modernizing built environment in this part of Philadelphia.

Sitting at the eastern end of Hale’s stretch of houses, and built just before in 1886, the Northwestern National Bank bank was done in a High Victorian style by Otto C. Wolf. Wolf more widely known for his prolific resume of brewery constructions. The bank was later transformed into the Smith Baptist Chapel and remains open today.

New Digs: Brewerytown Renovation Part Two

Finding beautiful hardwood floors under nasty green carpeting was one of many big surprises that Ashley and Thomas in renovating their first home. We’ll explore these and other unique moments in Part Two of our New Digs: Renovation series.

For Ashley and Thomas, removing that tired carpet was just one of many necessary leaps of faith taken during their first home renovation process. While they lucked out with the home’s hidden hardwood floors, other surprises and tough decisions were frequent and not always so positive.

“We really had to learn how to roll with the punches” Ashley says with a laugh.

The new house, a Brewerytown rowhome purchased for under $50,000, needed some major work done. The newlyweds were smart enough however to know they needed a good contractor to handle not only this older property’s known issues, but also those surprises as well. After getting some lowball offers, they found a local contractor who was both realistic about their budget and, just as importantly, a good listener.

Basic renovations to the plumbing and electrical systems came first. Even then though, Ashley and Thomas were eager to add their own touches. When remodeling the kitchen for example, they chose to have the sink face out towards the dining room: that way they could talk to guests while doing the dishes and ultimately better incorporate the kitchen into the flow of their home.

With so many of these needed and technically complex renovations going on, the newlyweds knew it was important they stay informed even if they didn’t quite have an opinion/choice in the matter. “I just had to keep telling myself ‘You are allowed to ask as many questions as you want’” Ashley says “and I’m glad we had a contractor who got that.”

Once the big-ticket changes were made, the couple got their chance to make some more fun, cosmetic changes. Raising the ceiling in the master bedroom, restoring an original skylight in the bathroom and scrapping the ancient wallpaper for fresh paint helped personalize and brighten their new home.

Sitting in their beautifully renovated living room, Ashley now has the chance to wax philosophical about the whole renovation experience. “You learn you have to go through open doors and if you come across a closed one, well, you find another way forward.”

To see Ashley and Thomas’ fully renovated home, check out the video below.

New Digs: Brewerytown Renovation Part Two

New Digs: Brewerytown Renovation Part One

Buying and renovating a home is tough business, especially for first timers. In this two part series, we’ll meet Ashley and Thomas, newlyweds who recently purchased a house in Brewerytown and got to experience the ups and downs of the renovation process.

Ashley, a mental health therapist, and Thomas, a youth soccer program director, were renting in Fairmount when they decided it was time to test the waters of home ownership.

They set about to make their limited budget work in the nearby (and up-and-coming) Brewerytown and Francisville neighborhoods. “There are some great opportunities around here if you’re willing to do the work” Thomas notes.

After seeing a number of homes in need of serious TLC, Ashley and Thomas got a call from their Solo Real Estate agent to come see a rowhome just north of Girard before developers scooped it up. The two rushed over and quickly made an offer on the 3 bedroom / 1 bathroom house. While it took several anxious weeks for their offer to be accepted, they eventually settled for just under $50,000.

The newlyweds however quickly realized they needed to keep their vision in line with their finances. While their FHA 203k loan was enough to make the major updates the house needed, they knew they’d have to be smart about which cosmetic changes they could afford to undertake. Finding the right contractor to help make these big decisions was key, too.

Keeping an eye trained on the big picture and the small details then, the two were ready for the challenge of transforming their new Brewerytown home.

Check out the video below to see Ashley discuss her new house while it was under construction. Also, stay tuned for our next article in this series to see this couple’s dreams for their home meet the realities of the renovation process.

New Digs: Brewerytown Renovation Part One