Look Up! Moderne and Machine Age schools survive closing lists

“Look Up!” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. The photo essays focus on different Philadelphia areas and their distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.

The recent waves of public school closing announcements have spared a pair of very active and attractive high school buildings. Both reflect the optimistic, forward-thinking attitudes of early to mid-century architecture, and their features are still inspiring in the early 21st century.

The Murrell Dobbins Vocational School, 2150 West Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia, is a bulwark of Art Deco confidence. The mammoth structure was designed by public school architect Irwin T. Catharine and erected in 1936. It was among the 158 school buildings placed in a special thematic district on the National Register of Historic Places in the late 1980s. 

The nomination form describes a six-story, 15-register brick and stone  building, with a central section of seven stories with nine registers. Terra cotta trimmings highlight the top and the piers that separate the registers. Carved stone panels in the Deco style adorn the central openings, and fluted pilasters separate the registers on the front façade. Overall, the building is “a landmark within its community and represents a major work of the Art Deco/Art Moderne styles,” the nomination form states.

The William H. Sayre High School, 5800 Walnut Street, is a striking example of Machine Age architecture and looks like a streamlined cruise ship that docked permanently in West Philadelphia. Sayre was constructed in 1949, too late for the National Register district; which covered buildings from 1818 to 1938. 

Sayre was built by Howell Lewis Shay & Associates, a firm with a long, distinguished history in the Philadelphia area. Shay practiced with Horace Trumbauer before starting his own firm. His portfolio includes work on the U.S. Customs House, the Packard Building, the Drake Hotel, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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“Look Up” and check out the nouveau mansions of North Broad

“Look Up” and check out elegant Southwark
“Look Up” and check out Henry Disston’s company town
“Look Up: and check out Spruce Hill
“Look Up” and check out Green Street
“Look Up” and check out West Laurel Hill
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“Look Up” and check out Awbury Arboretum
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“Look Up” and check out Overbrook Farms
“Look Up” and check out Girard Estate
“Look Up” and check out Rittenhouse/Fitler Square

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