A Germantown private school and a local developer are moving forward with plans that would see a long-empty and historic Wayne Avenue church property transformed into a new elementary campus.
Developer Ken Weinstein has an agreement in place to buy and restore the two-acre St. Peter’s Episcopal Church property, at the corner of Wayne Avenue and Harvey Street.
The site would become the new home to the independent Waldorf School of Philadelphia, now located on the New Covenant campus at 7500 Germantown Ave.
The move to 6008 Wayne Ave. would give the school some room to grow, adding to its classes in preschool through grade 8.
It could also save the St. Peter’s campus from ongoing deterioration to the Gothic stone church, chapel, rectory and parish house, designed and built between 1873 and 1883 by Frank Furness and George Hewitt.
Weinstein said he will seek historic preservation tax credits toward the $4 million project, but the property will go back on the city’s tax rolls, as his Philly Office Retail will buy it for $435,000 and lease the campus to the school for at least 10 years, starting in 2014.
There is much work to be done before that, as St. Peter’s has been empty since 2005. Many sections of slate roof are damaged, water infiltration has left some wood floors warped, and in each building are collections of pieces of dramatic stone ornamentation, wood filigree and metalwork that have broken off.
Also, the 5,100-square foot church is without several historic stained glass window panels, removed after a lengthy disagreement between the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia and the city’s Historical Commission.
On March 6, the zoning board will consider Waldorf’s application for a special use exception to create a school on the property, and for interior renovations to the four buildings.
Brenda Ridley, the school’s administrative director, said they have been in talks with the diocese for about two years, but ultimately couldn’t afford to buy and renovate the property.
Weinstein said he, too, looked at the property about three years ago, but wasn’t interested in taking on another run-down church property without a use lined up.
“The answer is, no, I don’t need another surplus church property,” said Weinstein, who already owns two former churches along Germantown Avenue. “But Waldorf comes and says, ‘We found this wonderful property; would you buy it and rehab it?’ It had my name on it.”
Ridley said the property spoke directly to the thinking that guides the 200 Waldorf schools in North America, which are based around an educational philosophy developed in Germany in the early 1900s.
The school eschews technology in early grades, encouraging more tactile learning experiences including movement and hand-work projects.
“We really prize the use of the hands to create beauty,” she said.
It seemed fitting, then, to be surrounded by examples of craftsmanship nearly every place the eye falls.
Most of the metal roof ornamentation remains, and carved faces peer down from stone doorways near a stone breezeway and port-cochere. Many rooms have tiled fireplaces, each depicting a different theme.
The mantels are gone, but they’ll be back: Weinstein’s crews found them detached from the walls, left behind by thieves who were likely on their way back to take them.
“They had them ready to go, they even left tools behind,” Weinstein said.
The pieces are now in storage until they are restored and reinstalled.
The church’s interior will see a second floor added, but the main part of the sanctuary will be preserved as an open space for music, performance and other activities. Classes will be divided between the former rectory and chapel, and the separate parish house will become the school’s administrative offices.
St. Peter’s is now listed among the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s most endangered sites (PDF), one indicative of the city’s glut of empty churches and schools struggling to find new uses.
The diocese had trouble finding a buyer for the property as it battled the city historical commission for permission to remove some or all of the religious-themed stained-glass windows.
Four of the pieces, were sold to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the few stained-glass elements remaining are ornamental accents.
But many original leaded glass windows remain, as do original doors and frames, a carved-wood library loft, and a dramatic open stone hearth.
Move to Germantown
The move to Wayne Avenue will allow the school, now somewhat isolated on the broad New Covenant campus, to engage more with the Germantown community, as the campus sits on a busy corner, Ridley said.
Its plan calls for only nine parking spots; the school says it thinks some of its roughly 40 employees will take public transit and many others will park on surrounding streets.
Ridley said school buses would pick up and drop off along Wayne Avenue, and estimated about 20 parent car trips in and out of the property each day.
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