Lawrence Street in Northern Liberties is one of those quiet mid-block alleys where the low hum of city traffic all but disappears. It's easy to forget, amidst the dappled sunlight and actual butterflies that flit from one sidewalk planter to the next, that you're still in the middle of a bustling Philadelphia neighborhood. But it's when you reach number 876 that things really take a turn for the rustic. You've found Northern Liberties' very own log cabin, confusing and delighting residents and visitors in turn since the 1980's.
The cabin was built by hand for around $50,000 by artist Jeff Thomas. It's positioned on four plots of land that once belonged a former girlfriend of Thomas'. The conceptual artist had just moved from West Virginia, where he had constructed a similar log cabin as part of a 1970's "back to the land" commune. Unfortunately, the commune's days were short-lived and he moved to Philadelphia.
Almost thirty years later, the log cabin he constructed in the then almost-completely blighted Northern Liberties neighborhood still stands. "It was a remote part of the city, then," he says. "All the houses across the street were abandoned. . . . A log cabin was something I knew how to build." So he brought in a truckload of 30-foot Poplars from a friend's West Virginia and got to work.
Inside, the cabin's design is minimal: It consists essentially of two rooms: one upstairs and one downstairs. "Hanging from the rafters are frying pans, a hammock, and mobile sculptures made of sticks gnawed by beavers, creatures Thomas admires for their woodworking skill."
The log cabin, now swimming in a sea of pricey warehouse conversions and tidy brick rowhomes, serves as a reminder, just as Isaiah Zagar's Magic Gardens do, of the optimism and artistic spirit that has the power to change a neighborhood —if not an entire city, one plot of land at a time.