Melvin Chappell, The Factory
Chappell photographs the beauty of Philadelphia, usually pointing the lens of his camera at the drama of the Wissahickon or an atmospheric moment in Fairmount Park. He also photographs the manmade environment.
Here, his subject is the Willow Street Steam Generation Plant, a gigantic abandoned steam plant that was constructed on Willow Street near Callowhill in 1927 by the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO). For about 50 years, the structure functioned as part of the steam generation grid of Philadelphia, using energy from coal to generate steam. It has been abandoned for almost 30 years and has escaped the wrecking ball because large quantities of heavy industrial equipment and asbestos make demolition exceedingly expensive.
Chappell was attracted to the symbolism and monumental stature of this relic of Philadelphia’s industrial heyday; its smokestacks are 163 feet in height.
In Chappell’s photograph, the building rises from the bottom edge of the tableau, slightly off-kilter, seemingly ready to dissolve into the clear sky. Wispy trees and suggestions of vegetation are visible, perhaps a signal that they may eventually overtake the structure. Chappell noted, “I had known the giant building by sight and have watched rust overtake the metal parts of its outer shell from year to year as I drove past on the Vine Street Expressway. When I came upon it and realized it was abandoned, it became both sad and fascinating to me. I had to figure out a way to make a photograph, because one day, maybe soon, it will be gone.”
Chappell has participated in exhibitions across the Commonwealth and across the country. In 2014, he had a solo exhibition of his work at the Germantown Historical Society, and his work is in the collection of the African American Museum of Philadelphia.