Letter from the Northeast
Autistic Endeavors Learning Center was unable to come up with enough cash to complete the planned July purchase of the historic Lower Dublin Academy in Holmesburg. Situated at Academy and Willits Roads (Academy Road takes its name from the building), the Lower Dublin Academy is one of the most historic buildings in the Northeast. A fire gutted the structure in 2006, leaving it a burned-out, endangered hulk. Autistic Endeavors has plans to renovate the building and, appropriately enough, use it for the original purpose for which it was constructed in 1798: education.
Now, with acquisition delayed, the non-profit school turns to two fundraising events in October.
The Lower Dublin Academy traces its history to money designated for the education of local youth in the 1695 will of Holmesburg resident Thomas Holme (1625-1695), Pennsylvania’s first Surveyor General and the man who laid out the City of Philadelphia. The area at that time was part of Lower Dublin Township in the County of Philadelphia. Holme’s bequest was not actually carried out until 1723, when his estate in Lower Dublin was divided following the death of his daughter. An acre and a half of the estate was set aside at that time for construction of a log schoolhouse. By the late eighteenth century the schoolhouse had become deteriorated and the Trustees of the Lower Dublin Academy were incorporated in 1794 to manage the school and administer its funds. They built the present Academy building on the site in 1798. Among the school’s early alumni were naval war hero Stephen Decatur (1779-1820) and educator and clergyman Thomas Hill (1818-1891), President of Harvard University from 1862 to 1868.
In the mid nineteenth century the Academy building was leased to the Controllers of the Public Schools of the First School District of Pennsylvania and renamed the Thomas Holme School. In 1901 it was sold to the City of Philadelphia and served as a city public school until it was closed in 1925. After that, the building was a private residence for a time and then became vacant. It was being renovated for law offices when the fire, which was determined to be arson, struck in 2006.
The fate of the Academy has been a major concern ever since. In 2008 local historian Bruce Conner formed the Friends of Lower Dublin Academy to work toward preserving the building. Through Bruce’s efforts the Academy was placed on Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s 2009 Endangered Properties List and various strategies were being explored for preserving it. Now those efforts may be unnecessary. Autistic Endeavors’ Founder and President/CEO David Butkiewicz has indicated that he is committed to preserving the building and celebrating its history.
Although they no longer have any connection to the building, the Trustees of the Lower Dublin Academy still exist as a charitable organization, awarding grants for local educational purposes. The Friends of Lower Dublin Academy, a separate organization, is focused primarily on preserving the building. Sadly, its founder Bruce Conner died in March of this year as a result of injuries sustained in an auto accident and will not be around to see what happens to the building he worked so hard to preserve.