Benjamin Baker doesn’t have to travel very far to find art in Philly, a city already full of thousands of murals. At the drop of a hat, he can call up a friend to come over and work his or her magic on the colorful masterpiece that adorns three walls of his home in Callowhill.
Baker has lived in his one-room condo in the Shoe Factory Lofts for seven years. In that time, dozens of people have contributed to his home’s mural. In fact, the constantly evolving artwork helps Baker stay put in one place, despite being a perpetual renter before.
“When I rented places before I bought here seven years ago, I'd get bored of them after a year,” Baker says. “Then, I'd move and all would be okay. Being in this place for so long, I've tried to pack it out with a lot of art, plants, books, records, and other fun stuff.”
Today, plenty of Baker’s friends and colleagues have been welcomed into his home and contributed their work to the walls, and Baker documents every iteration. But while this has been Baker’s home for nearly a decade, he doesn’t forget the long process it took to get here.
Baker was paralyzed from the waist-down after an accident in college. So when he started his house-hunting journey seven years ago, it was a new experience for both himself and his realtor, in different ways. For Baker, he was having his first go in the then tepid Philly housing market.
“It was an educational process for my realtor because she’d never dealt with someone in a wheelchair,” Baker recalls.
He had a must-haves list that included outdoor space, hardwood floors, proximity to ADA-accessible public transportation, south-facing windows, “and if I could find it, something that had an industrial feel to it.”
His realtor took him to more than 20 showings over the course of seven months. When he saw the condo in the Shoe Factory Lofts, the views of Center City and the raw, open space convinced him to buy in the building.
For the most part, when Baker moved into his home there wasn’t too much to be done to the apartment. The kitchen had already been renovated by the former owner, who happened to be a chef, and the view alone from the factory-style windows were enough to wow guests who walked through Baker’s front door.
There were some functional upgrades to be made: The bathroom door had to be widened, and Baker used the leftover glass door and turned it into his desk. In addition, there had to be a way for Baker to water his collection of hanging plants.
“I knew I wanted to have plants, but I couldn’t have anything like a normal hanging plant,” Baker recalls. “So the pulley system was a brainstormed idea, that maybe I could hang them from the ceiling and use a rope to pull them down. It’s super functional.”
The three-sided wall partition that separates the bedroom from the rest of the condo also wasn’t working. Originally a gray blank wall, Baker knew he immediately had to make a change.
“It was ugly as sin,” Baker recalls. “My business partner who is one of my best friends, is also one of those creative geniuses. It was right at the beginning of graphic futurist movement, so I told him, ‘I want you to paint up my wall.’”
Soon after, he asked his other friend, who paints portraits, to add contribute to the mural. Baker says, “It just steamrolled from there. So then it was a matter of, ‘Who do I know?’”
Today, 21 (and counting) friends have contributed to the mural—and not just locals. Artists from New York, Boston, and Detroit have also made their marks on the wall.
“It changes every month,” says Baker.
But while the mural is certainly his home’s main conversation starter, the rest of his place is also filled with unusual pieces and tchotchkes.
“I’ve just collected seven years of stuff,” Baker remarks. There’s his collection of bobble heads of Phillies players, displayed on top of a secretary desk his dad gifted him. Across the room, his collection of vinyl records take up an entire bookcase that doubles as the entrance to his bedroom. And his large collection of artwork that has yet to be framed is stored away in a metal filing cabinet he found at a local flea market.
“Almost anything that comes in here, it’s going to be permanent furniture,” Baker says.
Baker, who currently works at Stateside Urbancraft Vodka in Kensington, says just like the changing neighborhood he lives in—Callowhill is the heart of a major redevelopment project to turn an abandoned rail line into the Rail Park—he’ll keep finding ways to change it up in his own home.
Not only does his mural change on a monthly basis, but so does the brick wall behind his desk, that’s covered in framed artwork and his own photography. “I try to change up the arrangement of the art on the brick wall every time something new goes up to keep the feel fresh.”
And barring any major life or career changes, Baker has invested in his neighborhood for the long haul. “I thought a lot about this neighborhood when I was going to buy because I knew I was going to be here for awhile.”
He’s particularly taken with the light and unbeatable view he gets to see every day, of a constantly changing city. “People ask why I don't have blinds. There are a number of reasons, mainly because the sunlight is awesome and feeds me and my plants. Also, the view of Center City isn't half bad.”