Work underway to transform abandoned Germantown church into vibrant school and community fixture

With financing in place and zoning approval obtained, work is underway to transform a vacant Germantown church into a private school.

Developer Ken Weinstein has purchased the former St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, located at the corner of Wayne Avenue and Harvey Street, and is beginning restoration on the site. The two-acre grounds will become the new home to the independent Waldorf School of Philadelphia, currently located in Mt. Airy.

On Friday, Weinstein told NewsWorks that he took acquisition of the site in June at a price tag of $435,000. His organization, Philly Office Retail, will lease the campus to the school for at least 10 years, beginning in 2014.

Rehab work ahead

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Weinstein will also spend $4 million on repairs to the site, some of which he hopes to offset with historical-preservation tax credits.

“They’re fantastic structures,” said Weinstein, in reference to the Gothic stone church, chapel, rectory and parish house, designed and built between 1873 and 1883 by Frank Furness and George Hewitt.

A good deal of the multi-million dollar renovation budget will be allocated to roof repairs. Weinstein said 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.

Currently, limited demolition operations are underway, as is the removal of asbestos at the site.

Weinstein noted that the asbestos abatement is much more extensive than originally considered, as it is present in all four of the site’s buildings. His contractors will be removing 100-percent of the asbestos, which is expected to conclude within the coming weeks.

Waldorf School excited

Once that is complete, rehabilitation will begin in earnest. The lease with Waldorf requires that the school is in place by Aug. 2014. Together, they’ve been in extensive communications about the project since Waldorf officials approached Weinstein last May.

“Our community is really behind this project,” said Alexandra Borders, director of admissions for the school which has outgrown the New Covenant campus at 7500 Germantown Ave.

Founded in 1996, The Waldorf School is a pre-K through 8th grade school serving approximately 200 children in the Northwest and Greater Philadelphia region.

Borders said that she expects enrollment to increase when the school begins classes in Sept. 2014, with a planned expansion to the school’s early childhood-education offerings.

Despite requests by parents, Borders there are no plans to expand the educational ceiling beyond the eighth grade.

A community fixture

While adding value to the neighborhood and reviving an otherwise abandoned building, Borders said she believed the new building will house much more than a school, but be the centerpiece in a larger community.

To this end, the former sanctuary will be turned into a new community space; in addition, she envisions multiple playgrounds, community gardens and an outdoor amphitheater, arts and crafts studios, a commercial kitchen, a library and a school store.

A section of Fairmount Park is being set aside by the city for Waldorf members to landscape and preserve.

“When the renovation is complete, our sense is that it will be a huge victory for our city,” said Borders. “It shows what can be achieved when communities pull together.”

Once endangered

In late 2010, St. Peter’s was listed among the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s most endangered sites, one of many empty churches and schools in struggling to remain viable structures.Benjamin Leech, advocacy director for the PAGP, told NewsWorks that his organization fully supports of the adaptive reuse, having monitored the plans for the campus as they came into being.

“We think it’s a great opportunity to find a new user for this very significant and very challenging site,” said Leech.

Previously, 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.

As for the fates of the five other churches that shared endangered status with St. Peter’s in 2010, Leech said their fates have been a “mixed bag,” with both success stories and others, such as the Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street, whose futures remain uncertain.

Neighbors react

In the area known as the Tulpehocken Station Historic District, many neighbors are looking forward to having the school in place.

Luke Smith, chair of zoning for the West Central Germantown Neighbors, said that his organization voted in support of the plans. WCGN met three times with architects from Waldorf as plans progressed, including a public meeting held in February 2013.

“We’ve been very pleased with their proactive approach to engaging the community,” said Smith, noting concerns about parking. “Some neighbors have expressed reservations regarding congestion at pickup and drop-off, and worried there wouldn’t be enough parking for the school, but on balance, the consensus was overwhelmingly one of support.”

Personally, Smith is enthusiastic about the renovation’s potential impact on the community.

“I’ve lived within two blocks of this church my whole life, and so has my dad,” said Smith. “We’re both very pleased that it will be getting new life, and bringing even more families with young children into our neck of the woods.”

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