Despite project delays, Waldorf School breaks ground in Germantown

 Ground was broken Saturday at Wayne Avenue and Harvey Street for the Waldorf School of Philadelphia's future site. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

Ground was broken Saturday at Wayne Avenue and Harvey Street for the Waldorf School of Philadelphia's future site. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

While a blue tarp covering the roof and wooden support beams suggesting much exterior work remains, families and staffers from the Waldorf School of Philadelphia broke ground at their new campus in Germantown on Saturday.

Located at the intersection of Wayne Avenue and Harvey Street, the two-acre site will house the independent pre-K through 8th grade program which serves approximately 200 children from the Northwest and Greater Philadelphia region.

The Germantown campus was once the home of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The four buildings on the site – acquired by developer Ken Weinstein in June for $435,000 – need extensive restoration, with estimates reaching as high as $5 million.

Weinstein told NewsWorks earlier this year that his company, Philly Office Retail, will enter a long-term lease with the Waldorf School for the campus. The move-in date will be Aug. 2015.

“It has been a long time coming for our school to have its own home,” said Waldorf School Chair Kerry Hoffman.

Room for growth

Founded in 1996, the school is currently located at the site of the New Covenant campus, along the 7500 block of Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy.

It has grown from a single kindergarten class in the basement of a church to its present size, with future expectations for five kindergarten classrooms, a nursery and eight full grade-school classrooms.

“Obviously, we have grown too large for where we are now,” she explained, noting that the new site would offer additional space to the school, along with historical and aesthetic benefits.

The site itself

The four buildings – a Gothic stone church, chapel, parish house and rectory – were designed and built between 1873 and 1883 by Frank Furness and George Hewitt. It is said that Walt Whitman used to roam the grounds.

The buildings have been in disuse since April 2005, and by late 2010, St. Peter’s was listed among the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s most endangered sites.

Last May, members of the school’s board approached Weinstein to explore the idea of a partnership to purchase and renovate the site, according to school documents. A few months later, a lease between the two was secured, and Weinstein approached the Episcopal Diocese with an offer to purchase St. Peter’s.

Originally, the lease between Waldorf and Philly Office Retail required that the school would be place by Aug. 2014. However, after appraisals by Weinstein and his contractors, the move-in date for the school had to be pushed back.

Why the delay?

Weinstein explained that the demolition process revealed additional work was needed to make the site school-ready. It’s not the first snag in the project.

In a previous interview, Weinstein noted that the asbestos abatement was much more extensive than originally thought (it was present in all four buildings.) Contractors recently finished removing 100 percent of the asbestos.

Weinstein also noted that the deterioration of the roofs on the church and chapel was so extensive that, without further mitigation, the buildings would had to have been torn down within two years’ time. Right now, contractors are focusing on structural aspects of the project.

“By taking another year,” he said, “we are going to have a much better project and one that is much-better budget-wise.”

Weinstein also attributed the delay to the dictates of historical preservation: City, state and federal agencies all had to weigh in. However, by meeting the various requirements, he will receive about $1 million in historic-preservation tax credits for the site.

State and city historical commission approvals are now in hand for the project, and he expects to receive word from the National Park Service in in the coming days.

While disappointing, school officials are in some ways relieved with the decision to delay moving in.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said Hoffman, noting that the added time will allow for further preparations.

She added that she’s been receiving positive feedback from school parents, as well.

Neighborhood reaction

In the area known as the Tulpehocken Station Historic District, many neighbors look forward to having the school in place. Earlier this year, the West Central Germantown Neighbors civic association expressed support for the project, despite some lingering concerns about traffic and parking.

Hoffman emphasized a commitment to the neighborhood.

“We’re excited to be part of this vibrant and strong community,” she said.

Enrollment is expected to increase to approximately 300 when classes begin in 2015. Despite requests by parents, there are no plans to expand the educational ceiling beyond the eighth grade.

Waldorf parents Jen and Don Gatens of West Mount Airy attended the groundbreaking with their daughter Gracie, who is currently enrolled in the school’s nursery-school program.

“We’re really excited about the growth, and we’re excited about what the site can bring,” said Jen Gatens, referencing the architecture and outdoor space.

While Gracie hasn’t fully appreciated the impact of her school’s move yet, her parents are pleased about the school’s new location and its connection to the surrounding neighborhood.

“It’s part of the community,” said Don Gatens, “and it’s repurposing something that’s really cool.”

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