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Sigma Studios Gets A Stay As City Gives More Time To Decide Historic Designation

Philadelphia

The city of Philadelphia is closer to deciding whether to save the vacant home of Sigma Sound Studios, the creators of The Sound of Philadelphia, which a developer wants to convert into luxury condominiums and fans want to transform into a museum.

Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios in the 1980s.

Though repurposing to a museum appeals to some, the timing is tough. Museums around the world are facing closure as the coronavirus pandemic obliterates traffic.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission decided Friday to give an advisory panel called the Committee on Historical Designation more time to review a request by Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia to declare the Sigma property historic. 

"We try to be very broad in the types of properties that we recognize," the Preservation Alliance Director of Advocacy Patrick Grossi said. "Its cultural significance is undeniable."

The Historical Commission needs to formally grant a continuance so that the Committee on Historical Designation can complete its work, Grossi said. 

The Sigma building, at 210 and 212 North 12th St., is owned by 210 North 12th Street Investment and 212 North 12th Street Investment, according to city property records. The property was acquired in February 2015 for $1.03M. A week later, the owners applied for a demolition permit, which later expired.

Last year, the property's owners received a zoning permit to convert it to a mixed-use building with commercial space on the first and second floors. The third through 10th floors would have 26 dwelling units. A developer likely won't have any problems finding a buyer eager to live in a desirable Center City neighborhood.

Nino Tirani, an attorney representing the Sigma owners, has indicated he plans to oppose any historic designation, which would subject the property to additional oversight and prevent its demolition. He declined to comment for this story.

An ad hoc group of music fans and professionals wants to convert the Sigma property into a museum honoring Philadelphia's musical heritage, including Sigma Sound. However, starting a museum is difficult in the best of times and incredibly challenging during the current economic slowdown.

A July survey by the American Alliance of Museums found that one out of every three museums — some 12,000 institutions — is in danger of closing as the pandemic has forced temporary closures and eliminated or reduced traffic. Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum recently announced that it would remain shuttered for the rest of the year and lay off 75% of its staff. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has slashed 23% of its staff. The Franklin Institute furloughed 36% of its employees. 

"Before COVID, I did have some funding lined up [for a museum], said Max Ochester, owner of Brewery town Beats record store and the Dogtown Records music label. "I was in talks with some big people in the entertainment industry in Philadelphia. Everyone has backed off a little bit."  

According to Ochester, the building could become a rotating exhibition space where Drexel and Temple University could showcase some of their collections related to Philadelphia's musical heritage. It may also house some of the personal effects from musicians who lived in Philadelphia, such as the Jazz bandleader and composer Sun Ra.

Backers may also set up a "virtual" museum to generate interest in the project, Ochester said.

If all goes well, Philadelphia could attract music tourists, much like Memphis gets from Elvis Pressley's Graceland and Detroit receives from visitors to the Motown Museum. 

"Why should Sigma be any different?" Toby Seay, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia and project director over the Drexel University Audio Archives, home to a collection of Sigma recordings, wrote Bisnow in an email. "Its impact on American music is enormous, and there is little to show for it in the city. Philadelphia has had a long and highly significant musical heritage, and most of everything has been demolished. The Sigma building is one of the last remnants of that cultural heritage. It is a great location to be a tourist destination." 

Founded in 1968 by sound engineer Joseph Tarsia, Sigma's fusion of gospel, rhythm and blues, classical, jazz and funk dominated the charts in the 1970s. Tarisa partnered with songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who created such classics as Me and Mrs. Jones, Love Train and If You Don't Know Me By Now.

Technological advances in recording technology made it cheaper and more accessible, undermining the need for recording studios. Tarisa sold the studio in 2003. It went out of business a decade later.