The former Thomas A. Edison High School at Lehigh Avenue and Seventh Street, a monumental building that was the original Northeast High School, has been all but completely stripped and is about to undergo complete demolition. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the school had been vacant since 2002.
The building, last in use as the bilingual Julia de Burgos Magnet Middle School, had become a target for scrappers and vandals. A four-alarm fire in August 2011, completely destroying the roof, solidified its reputation as an eyesore. With demolition underway, almost nothing of historic value remains inside the building.
The site is being redeveloped through a partnership between the real estate developers Orens Brothers and Mosaic Development Partners. The Edison Square shopping center, scheduled to open in May 2014, will include a Save-A-Lot supermarket, Burger King, and Family Dollar as its commercial tenants. Phase Two of the development will see the Art Deco addition to the school, facing Somerset Street to the north, adapted for reuse as affordable housing.
Orens and Mosaic acquired the property from the School District several months before the fire occurred. Plans for demolition were pushed back as the developers waited to secure financing from various sources, including the Reinvestment Fund, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. The use of public money in the project had also triggered a historic review of the premises through the State Historic Preservation Office.
Opened in 1905 as the Northeast Manual Training School, the building was designed by Lloyd Titus, who worked on dozens of schools as an architect for the Philadelphia Board of Public Education. The most striking feature of Titus’ stone-and-wood building was its castle-like central tower, flanked by four turrets with gargoyles radiating from all sides.
Yet the loftiness of the Gothic structure belied its original purpose: to provide free public education and vocational training to poor and working-class boys entering the industrial trades. Titus designed the school’s classrooms to be specialized learning spaces, a contrast with the multipurpose classrooms defined by divider walls that had been the previous standard in city schools. Northeast/Edison retained much of its vocational purpose throughout its history, even remaining an all-boys institution as late as 1979.
Northeast Manual was renamed Northeast High School in 1913. Amid changing demographics and heightened racial tensions, the school moved to its present location at 1601 Cottman Avenue–an area now associated with the “true” geographic Northeast, then a fast-developing community where white families had been flocking following the Second World War. The old school, which became Edison, was stripped of its connection to Northeast High.
Edison would also come to find its premises too outdated and relocate in 1988, to its current locale at Front and Luzerne Streets (now known formally as the Thomas A. Edison High School and John C. Fareira Skills Center).
Perhaps most significant in Edison’s narrative is its grim relationship to the war in Vietnam, a conflict which–much like those that have succeeded it–revealed how disproportionately America’s enlisted services drew from the ranks of the poor. Fifty-four Edison alumni perished in Vietnam, the most of any high school in the country.
A memorial to honor the Edison alumni will be erected at the entrance to the shopping center. (The present Edison/Fareira has a memorial on its premises as well.) The design for Edison Square gestures towards the Gothic stone figure of the school, although much of it will be new stonework. A spokesman for Mosaic Partners could not confirm how much, if any, original stone from the school would be included in the monument.
Photographer Matthew Christopher, of the website Abandoned America, calls Edison “easily the best of all the schools I have been to.” For his complete photo essay on the building, click HERE. Christopher made his first visit to the school in 2007, a time, he says, when much within the classrooms, hallways and auditorium were still surprisingly intact. He returned late last year (after the blaze) to find much of it gone, little more than a husk. His photos, both before and after, capture those elements frozen in time in the midst of decay, in the form of open textbooks, chairs, curtains, and details from murals and mosaics.
Edison will be remembered not only for its architectural grandeur, says Christopher, but also for what it stood for: “a huge symbol of the commitment to public education and the American Dream,” he says, “that belief that regardless of your caste background you can rise above. To see that building in that condition…is heartbreaking.”
Edison’s gargoyles will be removed and live on at another site, while salvage efforts led by the Philadelphia Salvage Company are attempting to preserve the most important pieces of the school’s interior. Soon, the final pieces of that symbol of a forgotten American Dream–the stones themselves–will bid adieu to Lehigh Avenue.
About the author
Christopher Mote is a graduate of Holy Family University and the Creative Writing Program at Temple University. Currently a freelance writer and editor, he lives in South Philadelphia and blogs about art and culture here.