City Controller’s Plan to Demo Schools Short-Sighted and Uninformed

 

Editor’s note: Of the eight schools on city controller Alan Butkovitz’s list of dangerous vacant school buildings, only one–Roberto Clemente Middle School–is deserving of the label. Clemente, the former Apex Hosiery mill, and the worst school building in the city in the 1980s and 90s, also stands on one of the city’s most dangerous drug corners. Of course, as Butkovitz says, it’s a “catastrophe waiting to happen.” It probably should be torn down. But the rest of Butkovitz’s proposal, to demolish seven other vacant schools, reeks of political opportunism. Four of the schools are historic, and they are mostly in very good condition. Perhaps, as the District presses forward on the closing of under-attended neighborhood schools, this battle is only just beginning. As regular Hidden City Daily contributor Rachel Hildebrandt tells us below, it would be a colossal mistake, and a waste of assets, to write off all vacant schools as liabilities.

Former Roberto Clemente Middle School | Photo: Peter Woodall

Last week, City Controller Alan Butkovitz accused the School District of Philadelphia of neglecting its vacant properties. He called for the demolition of eight long-vacant school buildings. To support his case, he presented dramatic photos and video of waste strewn in and about the buildings.

Indeed, long-vacant school buildings often attract blight. Most vacant properties do. But more importantly, vacant schools are potential assets. Philadelphia is filled with examples of school buildings that have been adapted to accommodate new, neighborhood-enriching uses.

To gain an understanding of how Philadelphia’s older public school buildings have fared within the context of preservation, I surveyed the 159 Philadelphia public school buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These buildings represent about 85% of the schools that were built between 1818 and 1938. I found that of 159 schools, thirty-four had been adapted to accommodate new uses, six had been demolished, and eleven are vacant. The vacant schools include:

  • Elizabeth Gillespie Junior High School, 18th and Pike Street
  • Feltonville School No.1, Rising Sun and Rockland
  • Francis Willard School, Emerald and Orleans
  • George Childs School, 17th and Tasker
  • Henry Longfellow School, Aramingo and Tacony
  • Rudolph Walton School, 28th and Huntingdon
  • Simon Muhr School, 12th and Allegheny
  • Spring Garden School No. 1, 12th and Ogden
  • Thaddeus Stevens School of Observation and Practice, 13th and Spring Garden
  • West Philadelphia High School, 47th and Walnut
  • William Pierce School, 24th and Christian

Simon Muhr School | Photo: Peter Woodall

Four of these schools (Elizabeth Gillespie, George Childs, Rudolph Walton, and Simon Muhr) appear on Butkovitz’s hit list. Some of these buildings have remained vacant for a decade or more, but this does not justify their demolition. The Daniel Boone School, for example, which stands in the shadow of the Piazza at Schmidts, stood vacant for a decade in a neighborhood location seemingly irretrievable until Bart Blatstein converted it into a luxury apartment building. And the Mary Channing Wister School, located at 8th and Poplar, remained vacant for two decades until the Philadelphia Police Department converted it into a state-of-the-art forensic science laboratory.

Vacant schools have commonly been converted into affordable apartment buildings. Philadelphia boasts seven such examples, including: the Darrah Apartments, the Landreth Apartments, the Dunlap Apartments, the Camphor-Brooks School Apartments, the Holmes School Senior Complex, the East Montgomery Apartments, and Anthony Wayne Senior Housing.

Photo: Peter Woodall

In addition, numerous schools have been adapted to accommodate community-serving non-profit organizations. The Thomas Powers School, located at 2801 Frankford Avenue in Kensington, was converted into the headquarters of the Community Women’s Education Project (CWEP). Since 1989, the CWEP has used the building to further its mission of providing life skills and vocational training to low-income women.

Vacant schools are thus hardly “catastrophes waiting to happen.” School buildings anchor and define their communities, and provide density and scale. They represent possibility. This is why we hope that the district will disregard Butkovitz’s short-sighted agenda and instead, develop a deaccessioning strategy that gives priority to adaptive reuse.

About the author

Rachel Hildebrandt, a recent graduate of PennDesign, is a native Philadelphian who is passionate about the changing city she inhabits. Before beginning her graduate studies in historic preservation with a focus on policy, Rachel obtained a B.A. in Psychology from Chestnut Hill College and co-authored two books, The Philadelphia Area Architecture of Horace Trumbauer (2009) and Oak Lane, Olney, and Logan (2011). She currently works as a program associate at Partners for Sacred Places.



3 Comments


  1. Vacant schools are definitely important potential neighborhood assets.

    For schools turned into apartments, add the impressive St. John Neumann Place to the list. The former campus of Catholic high school Bishop Neumann is now affordable senior housing. (http://www.stjohnneumannplace.org/)

  2. Any word on what might be happening to the former West Philly High? Another powerful structure that sits empty.

    • Rachel Hildebrandt

      The school district is going to put it on the market in 2012 … Hopefully, a preservation-minded buyer will redevelop it, but who knows? It’s a challenging building to deal with because it’s ENORMOUS.

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Fear & Floating At The Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade

Fear & Floating At The Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade

November 22, 2017  |  Last Light

Michael Bixler has this tribute to the zany hometown floats of the old Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade > more

New Book Claims PAFA As Catalyst For Modern Design

New Book Claims PAFA As Catalyst For Modern Design

November 21, 2017  |  Walk the Walk

In his new book, "First Modern," historian George E. Thomas asserts that Frank Furness opened the door to Modernism in 1876 with his design of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Joe Brin walks us through the architectural brilliance of the nation's first art school with this review > more

After 45 Years, Brandywine Workshop Still Thinking Creatively

After 45 Years, Brandywine Workshop Still Thinking Creatively

November 20, 2017  |  Vantage

It looks quiet, but the old 19th century firehouse at 730 South Broad Street, home of Brandywine Workshop, is buzzing with art and adaptation. Contributor Karen Chernick takes us behind the blue-green doors. > more

Cret Exhibition Captures Vibrations Of The City

Cret Exhibition Captures Vibrations Of The City

November 17, 2017  |  Vantage

Illustrator Ben Leech enlivens the dying art of architectural drawing with his exhibition, "Cret Illustrated: Revisiting a Philadelphia Icon in Sketches," at Woodlands Cemetery. Michael Bixler has the preview > more

Task Force Inches Closer To Delivering

Task Force Inches Closer To Delivering “State Of Preservation” Report

November 16, 2017  |  News

Mayor Kenney's Historic Preservation Task Force convened today for their fourth official meeting. Starr Herr-Cardillo reports > more

Give $$$, Get a Cool Perk: 2017 Campaign

November 13, 2017  |  Uncategorized

  Now more than ever, independent journalism needs the support of readers like you. DONATE to the Hidden City Daily today and receive something nifty in return. > more