If you’ve ever driven south on I-95, from NYC into Philadelphia, perhaps you’ve seen the rusted milk bottle structure on the South Philadelphia horizon.
This historical dairy factory is an iconic fixture of Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, whose residents have a special affection for its larger-than-life milk bottle water tower. Philadelphia preservationist Oscar Beisert, has even gone as far as deeming the milk bottle the “Eiffel Tower of Kensington” for its recognizability and significance to the area. The neighborhood icon can be seen printed on pint glasses and T-shirts, used to promote local festivals, and even tattooed on local’s bodies as a symbol of their neighborhood.
Developers Southwood Properties and Sterling Wilson are redesigning the Harbisons Dairy Building as a dynamic collection of boutique apartments, retail, and workspace now available to prospective tenants.
The historic water tower wasn’t just a brand moment — it served a function too. The tower feeds the building’s sprinkler system. The architect at the time suggested the steel tower take the shape of a white milk bottle.
Remember the milkman?
The plant’s founder, Robert Harbison, was an Irish immigrant who moved from Gwynedd Township to Kensington to open the plant at a time when people living in cities didn’t have refrigeration or dairy cows. Harbison’s delivered glass bottles twice daily across the city to loyal customers by horse and buggy. Thomas Harbison expanded his father’s company into a regional dairy empire with five plants, pasteurizing and delivering milk, ice cream and butter. Only the Kensington plant remains.
The brand took cues from the property’s industrial past. Our project began with a tour of the dairy plant prior to any demolition– just the raw space. Areas ranged from dilapidated refrigeration that felt the likes of a steampunk club out of Berlin to a 1900’s elevated farmhouse. We discovered old dairy tags and receipts of the early to mid-1950s. These relics played a part in the eventual branding and storytelling celebrating its past.
In Creative Company
Today, the dairy plant takes new life.
With gathering spaces led by the local and highly sought-after interior design group Rohe Creative, and architecture by SgRA, Harbisons Dairy creates an eclectic and thoughtfully curated residence. The adaptive reuse project has become a home base for Philadelphia’s creative scene– expect original details, top-of-the-line amenities, and finishes like a roof deck, oversized windows, and pet-friendly apartments.
Just down the street from Fishtown’s thriving social scene, Harbisons Dairy will bring another level of growth to Philadelphia. The redesigned space will house boutique apartments, community-driven retail, and the city’s fastest-growing companies—energizing the community and providing residents and tenants with absolute accessibility.
Inside the Transformation
Getting in the right branding headspace, we imagined the first residents to inhabit Harbisons Dairy– who where they, where did they work, what was their lifestyle like, how would they make the neighborhood their home, where would they go? We imagined the persona of an URBN art director headquartered in the Navy Yard, and an independent writer whose parents lived in Kensington; they even remembered the Harbisons delivery. Both fell for Harbisons because they value living in a revived relic. This guided the lifestyle, tone and character we aimed to capture. We defined it at as vintage, slightly mid-century, and with an artful demeanor.
Our vision is to create a place where residents and neighbors alike can find culture and community, all while recognizing the soul and spirit that has made this building so beloved." "Harbisons Dairy is a home base for those who want more than a place to live, but a place that brings new life.Sterling Wilson, Developer and CEO of POP! Promos