Why All Philly Schools Look The Same

 

Stevens School at 13th and Spring-Garden designed by Philadelphia schools architect Irwin T. Catharine | Photo: Philip Jablon

Earlier this year, the school district of Philadelphia announced that its $218 million budget deficit may result in more than 3 dozen school closures citywide. A hazy future could be in store for those decommissioned school buildings, potentially adding yet another distressed structural type to the redevelopment fray.

For anybody who has ever taken note of the gauge and aesthetic of most Philadelphia public schools, an indelible theme is evident. The reason: in the majority of Philadelphia neighborhoods developed prior to World War II, public schools were built according to the architectural vision of Irwin T. Catharine.

Himself the son of a Board of Education member, Catharine was appointed architect for Philadelphia schools in 1920. Only a few years into his tenure, he began campaigning for an overhaul of existing school buildings on safety, health and economic grounds.

George Washington Elementary School, designed by Irwin T. Catharine | Photo: Philip Jablon

Catharine concluded that the inventory of school buildings he inherited was largely outmoded, posing impediments to teachers and students alike. Some he deemed fire hazards because of their timber-framed construction in an era of gas-light illumination. This claim was heeded only after a fire swept through the original Philadelphia High School for Girls building at 17th and Spring Garden streets in the early 1930s.

Other schools were in less-than ideal locations, Catharine said. He cited schools bordered by cramped alleys and dingy slums, where lack of sunlight made learning a lugubrious, if not gloomy task. Students faced severe overcrowding and had to use latrine toilets located outside main school buildings.

Catharine called for the modernization of Philadelphia public schools through retrofitting and rebuilding. Utilizing modern building techniques, he presided over a boom in school construction that hasn’t been matched in Philadelphia since. He introduced steel and concrete framed buildings to the district. A set of standardized blueprints ensured that any sized plot of land designated for a school had a ready-made plan to match. This meant that a school could be built promptly and within budget in no more than two years’ time.

Standardization did not mean that all schools shared an identical look. Dimensions might be common among Catharine-built schools, but style and ornamentation vary widely. Many schools incorporated common Philadelphia architectural styles such as Second Empire and Georgian Revival. Still others bore styles scarcely seen in the conservative Quaker city. Catharine favored Gothic Revival, epitomized in his designs for Overbrook and Simon Gratz high schools. A number of 1930s Catharine specials featured Art Deco details. The hulking Bok and Dobbins vocational high schools – in South and North Philly respectively – are built in high Deco style, as is the Clara Barton School on Wyoming Ave.

Bok High School in South Philadelphia | Photo: Philip Jablon

Catharine was nothing if not an innovator. He pioneered the use of gardens and recreational space atop school roofs and included a cafeteria in every school. Cafeteria access meant students no longer had to trek home and back again for their mid-day meals.

Another crucial upgrade (taken for granted today) was the school bathroom. Catharine eliminated the outdoor latrine system by locating both a boys’ and girls’ bathroom on every floor of every school. In a 1925 interview with the Philadelphia Public Ledger on the issue, Catharine spoke of a specific decision he made about form and function in school bathrooms:

“Once every [toilet] partition put up was wood; nowadays white marble is used. And the children have been the direct cause of this. There is something in the nature of every boy which makes him want to carve his initial or whole name in a wall. If he isn’t clever enough with his pocket knife, he writes his name. White marble partitions and walls make it impossible for him to use his knife.”

Sadly, Catharine could not foresee the effect that Sharpie markers would have on his marble.

Palumbo School, designed by Irwin T. Catharine | Photo: Philip Jablon

Fittingly, however, Catharine’s greatest masterpiece was not a school at all, but the Board of Education building he designed for 21st and Winter streets. A magnificent structure, combining Classical Revival and Art Deco features, the building served as the School District’s headquarters until it was sold and turned into condominiums in 2005.

As an architect, Catharine has more buildings standing in Philadelphia today than Furness, Trumbauer, Chandler and Kahn combined. Fortunately for Philadelphia, nearly all of the one-hundred plus schools built during Catharine’s tenure are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, protecting them against demolition, or careless redevelopment. So if the ailing school district opts for a property sale, this unique structural legacy isn’t likely to suffer.

As developers set their gaze on up and coming parts of town, a few vacant Catharine gems are already being eyed for repurposing. Plan Philly and Philadelphia public school news source “The Notebook” have published stories about the Thaddeus Stevens School of Practice on 13th and Spring Garden, which is being eyed for a project by developer Eric Blumenfeld. In Northern Liberties, the former Daniel Boone School at Laurel and Hope streets (abandoned throughout the 1990s) went the condominium route in the early aughts.

The Philadelphia Board of Education building, designed by architect Irwin T. Catharine, completed in 1932 | Photo: Preservation Alliance

With the buildings he designed prime for redevelopment, it’s time to give credit where credit is due and add Irwin T. Catharine’s name to the list of Philadelphia’s revered architects.

About the author

Philip Jablon is a photo-journalist who splits his time between his native Philadelphia and his surrogate Thailand. In 2010 he earned an M.A. in Sustainable Development from Chiang Mai University. Since 2008 he has built a photographic archive of stand-alone movie theaters across Southeast Asia as part of his Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. He is interested in the architecture, development, and social history of both Philadelphia and Southeast Asia.

Send a message!



7 Comments


  1. Thanks – a nice piece.

  2. Wonderful piece… Hopefully we don’t loose any more schools to vandals.. You can’t recreate those structures
    anymore….

  3. Correction needed: registration on the national register doesn’t protect against demolition. Only the local historic register afford that protection. Thanks for the good piece.

  4. It’s great to see Irwin T. Catharine given his due. Thanks for mentioning the piece I wrote about the Thaddeus Stephens School on Spring Garden. [http://wp.me/p1Tyel-5CZ]

  5. Patricia Blakely

    In the main school district building he had a private suite of rooms including a wood paneled library with columns, a front door of stained glass. and a view of the Parkway…it was amazing.

  6. Good article. Thanks.

Trackbacks

  1. Meet William Hite | giving Irwin T. Catharine his due | Rizzo defaced | Art Museum ups admission | Sunoco deal
  2. My Homepage
  3. Preservation Round-Up: Summer Reading Edition - PreservationNation
  4. “Pantyhose Factory” School In Danger And On The Block | Hidden City Philadelphia

Leave a Reply

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

Recent Posts
From <em>Click</em> To Clink: A History Of Mug Shots In The Quaker City

From Click To Clink: A History Of Mug Shots In The Quaker City

September 20, 2018  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Harry K. gives us the backstory of Philadelphia's Rogues' Gallery, which has been tracking criminals in photographic form since the 1860s > more

Unlisted Philadelphia: Automobile Row

Unlisted Philadelphia: Automobile Row

September 18, 2018  |  Unlisted Philadelphia

Ben Leech spotlights unique and significant buildings not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places with his architectural illustration series, Unlisted Philadelphia. In this installment, he puts the pedal to the metal on Automobile Row > more

Abandoned Navy Hangar Prepares For Final Battle

Abandoned Navy Hangar Prepares For Final Battle

September 14, 2018  |  Last Light

A demolition study for the Mustin Field Seaplane Hangar at the Navy Yard puts a structural engineering landmark on notice. Michael Bixler takes us inside > more

Twitter Bot Reveals Revenue Loss From Tax Abatement

Twitter Bot Reveals Revenue Loss From Tax Abatement

September 13, 2018  |  News

Starr Herr-Cardillo catches up with the software engineer behind Philly Tax Abatements, a new Twitter account that aggregates the cost of City money lost to the 10-year tax abatement > more

Harvey Finkle: Photographer Seeks Justice For The Other

Harvey Finkle: Photographer Seeks Justice For The Other

September 10, 2018  |  Walk the Walk

New photography exhibition explores South Philly's Jewish communities and the city's transitioning immigrant populations. Joe Brin has the story > more

New Book Gives Insight Into Uncovering Philly History

New Book Gives Insight Into Uncovering Philly History

September 6, 2018  |  Vantage

Mickey Herr sits down with author and Philly historian extraordinaire Kenneth Finkel to discuss his new book, "Insight Philadelphia" > more