Preservationists urge scrutiny of older public school buildings

Editor’s Note: PlanPhilly partnered with the Philadelphia Public School Notebook to produce a February edition focusing on school facilities. With declining enrollment and 70,000 empty seats, it is likely that some schools will be closed.

By Alan Jaffe
For PlanPhilly

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 the best in innovative design. To residents, they may be neighborhood landmarks and integral parts of the community fabric.

The city’s existing school buildings predate the School District, which wasn’t established until 1818. Among the oldest standing buildings are 18th-century, one-room schoolhouses, such as the Beggars Town School in Germantown, that have been restored and still educate the public as tiny museums.

In the late 1980s, 158 of the 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 the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places protects them from significant alteration or even demolition.

The criteria for listing on the National Register are the same as that for the Philadelphia Register. The Philadelphia Historical Commission has designated some schools and has included others as elements of the city’s historical districts. 

Any blueprint for the closing of school buildings, according to local preservationists, should be preceded by an analysis of each property’s historical and architectural significance, potential real estate value, and its role in the neighborhood.

John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, divides school buildings into three overall categories.

Many of the buildings on the National Register are elementary schools, which Gallery described as “five- or six-story rectangular blocks” in residential areas. If those buildings appear on the District’s list for closing and have been listed on the National Register, they are eligible for tax credits and are physically 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. “Depending on the neighborhood they’re in, some are going to be more easy to dispose of than others. But there should be on the part of the School District and the city a recognition that those types of buildings are easy to convert, whether to condos, apartments or low-income housing. And there are still charter schools that can use spaces. I think there are a lot of opportunities for those older, historic buildings.”

Gallery’s second category includes those elementary, junior high or middle schools erected during the school building boom of the 1960s. Those buildings are not historic and are “not the best architectural examples,” he said. They tended to be built for specialized functions, and for security reasons had tiny windows that were hard for vandals to break. The 1960s schools are the most difficult to convert, except to a similar use, Gallery said. The closed Ada Lewis Middle School in East Germantown is a prime example.

“At the same time, there is an issue of the architectural merit of those buildings. From our point of view, we would be concerned about the schools on the National Register. And from the general point of view, losing some of the [1960s buildings] for the creation of alternative forms of development would not be a big deal.”

The third group, “which is the toughest group,” are the city’s large high school buildings. 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 1911-1912 at a cost of $1.3 million. Designed by chief school architect Henry deCourcy Richards in the Gothic/Institutional style, West Philadelphia High appears on the National Register.

Gallery sees potential for reuse of the building because of the presence of “institutional players” nearby, including the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, and the University City Science Center. “It is not inconceivable that you could find a multifunction program for that building. At the same time, it’s probably not an easy deal. A building like that merits somebody doing a feasibility study that looks at the possibilities before throwing in the towel,” Gallery said.

“The obvious benefit of it being on the National Register is the ability to get the tax credits to do the rehabilitation. If you tear it down, you’re throwing away millions of dollars that you could have had access to. Is there a deal that could be made to work? I don’t know. But with that place, it’s definitely worth someone trying to ask that question.”

While he sees little architectural merit in some of the mid-century schools, Gallery and other preservationists have advocated for the preservation of the modernist William Penn High School.

A sprawling complex of five interconnected structures, green courtyards and recreational areas, William Penn High was designed by the renowned Philadelphia-based architect Romaldo Giurgola. The $23 million building opened in 1973 and was the largest structure and the best-equipped school in the city. Due to declining enrollment and a deteriorating underground piping system, the school was closed last year.

Gallery wants to preserve William Penn because of its architectural innovation, and he thinks it could be converted for a combination of occupants. “Partly because it is built in these little clusters of classrooms, you can envision the idea of multiple users sharing that building,” he said. Temple University, a charter school, and other organizations could “function there in their own identities.”

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 in the late 1980s. But he does not think every historic building can or should be protected. “From the School District standpoint, it has to do what is best for the District. I’ve been a historical preservationist since the 1970s, but I’m not one who says every building should stand no matter what,” he said. “I can’t see the city getting in the way of progress all the time. Preserving history is expensive.”

But Moak would like to see an effort to find developers who would look at adapting the school buildings “before just knocking them down.”

He would also like to see some of the buildings preserved as examples of specific periods in school architecture. “There should be an example of 1860s and an 1890s building to show what a typical school looked like at those times,” Moak said.

Gallery, of the Preservation Alliance, believes the role of school buildings in their communities should be considered in any plan for closings as well. Just as when the threat of library closings by the city sparked residents’ outrage and mobilization, he expects neighbors to come to the defense of their schools. “Many civic groups that are trying to strengthen their neighborhoods have seen the schools as an asset, if they can be strong enough to have a good educational program,” he said, adding that schools serve as community centers and resources that attract new families and businesses.

The temporary closing of the concrete behemoth on North Broad Street led to the formation of the Coalition for the Revitalization of William Penn High School. Coalition member Bunmi Samuel, who lives five blocks from the school, said the community was proud of William Penn’s reputation for superb educators, well-trained graduates, and extraordinary resources, including radio and television stations, an Olympic-size pool, and a 450-seat theater. The community was crushed when the resources were pulled out and “the school was disinvested,” he said.

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. “William Penn could be a light of collaboration between university, businesses, the community, and the School District.

“Let’s not have an abandoned building in the heart of the city.”

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.”

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