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February 09, 2023

Landmark Northern Liberties building with American flag mural to be converted into apartments

The adaptive reuse project will bring 96 units to the property at 500 N. Christopher Columbus Blvd. The Philadelphia Historical Commission must approve exterior changes.

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American Flag Mural Building Philly StreetView/Google Maps

The Philadelphia Warehouse and Cold Storage building at 500 N. Christopher Columbus Blvd. features artist Meg Saligman's "Our Flag Unfurled" mural on the south side. The property is set to be converted into a 96-unit apartment building.

The Philadelphia Warehousing & Cold Storage building, whose American flag mural painted on an exterior wall is visible from I-95, will be renovated into a 96-unit apartment complex at the southeast edge of Northern Liberties.

Zoning permits for the project at 500 N. Christopher Columbus Blvd. were issued last week for the building's use to be changed to residential, with apartments on the first through eighth floors. The building was constructed in 1901 and was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in January 2021.

The 6,000-square-foot mural on the south wall of the building was painted by artist Meg Saligman in late 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. It was originally intended as a temporary display with paint donated by Sherwin Williams, but the mural was given a fresh coat in 2016 and rededicated ahead of the Wawa Welcome America festival and the Democratic National Convention.

For more than 20 years, the mural has been a landmark along Christopher Columbus Boulevard and for those traveling into the city on I-95. Saligman is an internationally renowned artist who has painted some of the largest murals in the United States, including Chattanooga's "The MLK Mural: We Will Not be Satisfied Until," which covers an incredible 42,179 square feet and took a team of 11 people to complete. Her other works in Philly include "Philadelphia Muses" on 13th and Locust streets, "Theatre of Life" on Broad and Lombard streets and "Passing Through" over the Schuylkill Expressway.

"Our Flag Unfurled" holds a special significance for Saligman, who told Mural Arts Philadelphia the following anecdote when the mural was rededicated:

My favorite response is from a woman who lost her brother in the World Trade Center that day. She reached out to me and said that as she was returning from New York to Philadelphia after the attack, she saw the flag being painted and it gave her comfort... Public art is unique in that you never know how, or if something you paint, will resonate. I am deeply touched that this mural endures and has become a symbol of remembrance of the events of September 11th, 2001.

The building is located in an area that's undergoing a boom in new residential construction, headlined by the 470-unit project planned at the site of the former Festival Pier venue. Across the street, a 466-unit project is planned at the former Greyhound bus terminal. And to the north, at 918 Delaware Ave., a 462-unit project is in the works that will include six new buildings. 

The Philadelphia Warehousing & Cold Storage complex also has a property at Front and Spring Garden streets that is not designated as historic and is slated to be converted into a 62-unit, mixed-use building.

Any changes made to the exterior of the historic portion of the warehouse complex will need to be approved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which means the mural potentially could survive. It was considered part of the building's significance in the nomination to the historic register, putting it in the jurisdiction of the historical commission. The warehouse does not currently have windows, however, and the south-facing view would naturally be appealing because of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

It's unclear how quickly this project will move forward, but it figures to be part of a huge transformation of this slice of the riverfront in the years ahead.