People’s Emergency Center spurring Lancaster Avenue transformation with Hawthorne Hall

Lower Lancaster Avenue has its share of vacancies and blank storefronts, but it’s also a place full of potential. And perhaps nowhere is a more interesting example of the transition afoot than Hawthorne Hall.

You may not know Hawthorne Hall by name. But if you cruise lower Lancaster Avenue, you can’t miss it.

Hawthorne Hall is the collective name for beautiful yet decaying, curving block of historic Victorian buildings on Lancaster Avenue between Hamilton and 39th streets. They were built as a mixed-use development, and unified through common ornamentation and design: rust colored brick accented with rusticated and inlaid masonry elements, terra-cotta sculptures, pressed metal oriel windows (more than a few missing), a fanciful roofline, and arched doors and windows. Taken together, the buildings are striking even in neglect.

Fortunately Hawthorne Hall’s next chapter is just beginning.

The People’s Emergency Center Community Development Corporation (PEC) purchased two major sections of Hawthorne Hall (3849 and 3859-61 Lancaster Avenue) in the last two years as part of its strategy to play a more active, direct role in the reviving the commercial climate of lower Lancaster Avenue.

Alongside its social service and housing work, PEC has worked to improve Lancaster Avenue through a façade grant program, helping market vacant storefronts, and redevelopment of a few smaller properties over the past few years. But PEC is thinking bigger.

In June 2011 PEC bought 3859-61 Lancaster Avenue, the curved corner of Hawthorne Hall at 39th Street from True Light church for $205,000. And last July, after years of conversation between PEC and the former owners, PEC closed on 3849 Lancaster Avenue, (Hawthorne Hall proper) for $385,000.

PEC paid cash for both buildings thanks to the accrual of 20 years worth of developer’s fees and a dash of government grant funding. Add to that their recent purchase of the United Bank building at 38th and Lancaster and PEC is making some strategic real estate moves to help shape the course of the corridor’s future.

“We’re going to need to be the ones who take those risks to create the market,” explained Farah Jimenez, PEC’s President and CEO. She said PEC hopes that through the redevelopment of these properties, other property owners on Lancaster Avenue will improve their buildings and attract new tenants.

“Lancaster Avenue has always been ripe,” says Farah Jimenez, PEC’s President and CEO. “We need to knit it together to bring more strength.”

Few buildings along this stretch of lower Lancaster Avenue are as charismatic and ripe with potential as Hawthorne Hall.

It is one of the neighborhood’s “signature facades,” describes Lee Striar, PEC’s Director of Real Estate Development. Because it’s such an important visual anchor its transformation holds symbolic significance for Lancaster Avenue’s revival, and it was identified as a key site to transform during PEC’s recent Make Your Mark [pdf] community planning process.

Kira Strong, PEC’s Vice President for Community and Economic Development has spent 14 years watching Hawthorne Hall and the past few years working with previous owners – outreach that ultimately paved the way for PEC’s purchases.

3959-61 Lancaster Avenue

Pre-construction work is underway to rehab 3959-61 Lancaster Avenue. PEC is working with KSK Architects Planners Historians to restore the once-beautiful facade, substantially renovate the ground floor storefront space, and rehabilitate four apartments on upper floors.

This project will come before the Historical Commission on Friday because the property is listed in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

As a way to activate the ground floor, PEC has signed a two-year lease with Mighty Writers to occupy the ground floor storefront beginning this fall.

“The ultimate goal always is to first fill the space, and then fill the space optimally,” explained Jimenez. “We’re not looking to put residential on the ground floor anymore because we really want to strengthen the ability of Lancaster Avenue to become a thriving retail and commercial corridor.”

The four light-filled but crumbling upstairs apartments will be rehabbed as market-rate units.

3849 Lancaster Avenue

This side of Hawthorne Hall has an open ground-floor commercial space and an intimate, currently decrepit, theater space upstairs that had been used by various fraternal organizations over time.

“We didn’t want to see it chopped up into housing,” Strong said standing in Hawthorne Hall’s theater.

PEC was attracted to this space because it’s a truly unique space along the corridor. And that means that the process for reviving this section of Hawthorne Hall will probably take a bit longer.

In the near term, Hawthorne Hall’s theater will be a Hidden City Festival site, allowing visitors a rare glimpse into the space starting later this month. (Visit the festival page for more information, to support the project or volunteer.

Eventually PEC hopes to see a sit-down restaurant on the ground floor of 3849 Lancaster – something their community planning process identified as desirable – and for the intimate auditorium upstairs to become a unique performing arts venue.

“Part of our vision is to maintain that [theater] space so it can serve as a community resource,” Jimenez said. “So we’re really looking for a retailer that’s interested in enlivening not just the ground floor but the second floor studio space. That’s our vision. We don’t know who that’s going to be just yet.”

Imagine a West Philly version of Johnny Brenda’s. Alternatively, PEC could see separate uses – a restaurant in the ground floor with the upstairs programmed by a collection of performing arts groups.

Whatever the new use, the hope is for it to be a community asset as well as a draw for folks beyond the neighborhood.

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