Preservationists urge scrutiny of older buildings
Philadelphia’s school buildings have value far beyond their function as educational facilities.
To the preservation community, they are markers of the city’s history. To architects, they may be examples of innovative design. To residents, they are neighborhood landmarks and part of the community fabric.
In 1988, 158 Philadelphia schools built between 1818 and 1938 were listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of a special thematic district. They ranged in style from Georgian and Colonial, reflecting American ideals for the new European immigrants; to Classical Revival, aspiring to Olympian achievement; to English Gothic, denoting institutions of great scholarship; to Art Deco and Machine Age, evoking a bright new future.
The national historic designation makes their redevelopment eligible for federal and state tax credits. But only listing on a separate Philadelphia historic register protects them from significant alteration or even demolition.
Any blueprint for the closing of school buildings, according to local preservationists, should include an analysis of each property’s historical and architectural significance, potential real estate value, and role in the neighborhood.
John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, divides school buildings into three categories.
Many of the buildings on the National Register are elementary schools in residential areas. Besides being eligible for tax credits, these are easy to convert to housing, the most common reuse for former schools. "Forgetting about current economic conditions, those buildings have a lot of real opportunity," Gallery said.
Gallery’s second category includes elementary and junior high or middle schools erected during the 1960s. Neither historic nor "the best architectural examples," Gallery said, they are difficult to convert, except to a similar use. The closed Ada Lewis Middle School in East Germantown is a prime example.
The third group consists of the city’s large high schools. Their size "makes it hard to figure out how to use them," Gallery said.
A prominent example is the original West Philadelphia High School, a five-story, brick and limestone structure built in 1912 at a cost of $1.3 million. On the National Register, it was designed by chief school architect Henry deCourcy Richards in the Gothic/Institutional style.
With institutions including Penn, Drexel, and the University City Science Center nearby, Gallery sees potential for conversion to a multifunction use. "The obvious benefit of it being on the National Register is the ability to get the tax credits. If you tear it down, you’re throwing away [access to] millions of dollars."
Gallery and others also want to preserve the modernist William Penn High School, which he thinks could be adapted for use by a combination of occupants. A sprawling complex of five interconnected structures, green courtyards and recreational areas, it was designed by the renowned local architect Romaldo Giurgola. Opened in 1973 as the largest structure and best-equipped school in the city, the facility closed last year due to declining enrollment and deteriorating underground piping.
Jefferson Moak, senior archivist for the National Archives at Philadelphia, wrote the nominations for the 158 city schools that were named to the National Register. And while he doesn’t think every historic building can or should be protected, he said the District should make an effort to find developers who can adapt schools to new uses "before just knocking them down." Plus, some should be saved as examples of specific periods in school architecture, he said
The temporary closing of the concrete behemoth high school on North Broad led to the formation of the Coalition for the Revitalization of William Penn. Coalition member Bunmi Samuel said the community was proud of the school’s reputation for superb educators, well-trained graduates, and extraordinary resources.
The coalition believes a new William Penn could offer a school for the surrounding six neighborhoods, continuing education, and a small business incubator. "This is a perfect place for people to learn, but it was always missing access from a community standpoint," Samuel said.
While making no promises about William Penn, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery said some schools should be reused because of their historical value. And the District’s facilities plan documents, while noting a difference between "historic" and "old" buildings, include preservation among some 11 factors to be considered "when developing options."
The District is "going to end up with a lot of surplus real estate," Gallery said. When deciding which schools to close, there has to be a process determining which are "easy to sell, or convert and contribute to the community."