The Bo De Buddhist Temple on South 13th Street below Washington Avenue is a vital center of Vietnamese life in South Philly–and it sports one of the city’s most wonderfully technicolor, and moving, murals on its north wall, “The Journey: Vietnam to US,” by Shira Walinsky.
Inside, Bo De is a cosmic delight, an explosion of color and simultaneously a place of warmth and quiet, a range that only hints at the building’s extraordinary history–a true lens on the life and times of South Philly.
The temple’s story starts in the 1870s, when the area surrounding the industrial superhighway that was once Washington Avenue was hit with an A-Bomb of population growth. Mostly Italian immigrants, these new Philadelphians settled in this neighborhood to find work. The local school that would be teaching their children was an itty bitty building on the 1200 block of what is now Kimball Street called the Temple Street School. It had been built as the Western Secondary and Primary School back when 12th Street was the western end of the developed city, and was too small and inadequate to serve the ever-expanding local population.
The expanding citizenry, combined with school building safety ordinances passed by City Council in 1879, caused a massive school construction boom throughout the 1880s. In the School District’s Second Section, east of Broad, roughly between Christian and Ellsworth Streets, larger school buildings had already been built to replace smaller ones, but there was still no sequel to the overcrowded Temple Street School. Finally, in 1883, an old scale factory at the corner of 13th and South Marshall(now Alter) Streets was purchased by the School District and demolished to make room for a brand new high-tech castle of education that could serve the neighborhood for generations.
Joseph D. Austin’s team of architects, exclusively employed by the School District to handle the boom, designed the new 8,000 square foot educational powerhouse. It would include such amazing amenities as fireproof stairways and multiple bathrooms. Controller of the Second Section, Dr. Charles W. Nebinger, had the power to name the school and didn’t really care what others had to say about it. Having already named one after himself, Nebinger named this school after one of his favorite boyhood teachers, John Stockdale.
The John Stockdale School opened in 1885 with over 100 students. Ten years later, it became a combined Primary and Secondary, expanding enrollment to about 400. Former schoolmarm Josephine Ritchie served as Principal from the school’s start well into the 20th Century. The location, in the middle of an industrial area, had its problems–the building took damage from a large industrial fire in 1887 and the facade would spend most of its 20th Century life darkened with soot.
By the mid-1920s, the population boom in Philadelphia still hadn’t subsided. At this point, the pitch black Stockdale School was outdated and overcrowded, as were most of the schools in the city. The sesquicentennial school building boom made the previous boom seem barely a dud. This school building streak coincided with a city-wide constructo-rama, and like other buildings erected in this period, most of the schools from this period are still in use. The students from the Stockdale School were combined with others at the Andrew Jackson School, which still educates local children today.
The old John Stockdale School went into other uses for the next five decades, well before adaptive re-use was cool. In the late 1920s it was heavily altered into an extension of nearby industrial buildings and large opening was cut into the south facade. Through the mid-20th Century, the old school served as a clubhouse. In 1970, American Federation of Musicians Local #234, the only remaining all-black musicians’ union in America–and the cradle of so many jazz legends–moved into the building.
The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz, Local #274’s social club, moved along with it. After Local #274 was ordered to integrate with the traditionally white musician’s union, Local #77, the Clef Club lived on in the old Stockdale School. The club flourished in this building, turning it into a must-visit hangout for jazz legends visiting Philadelphia. In 1983, the club became a non-profit organization and then, in 1994, moved to a brand new building at Broad and Fitzwater as part of the Avenue of the Arts revitalization effort.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, this part of South Philly began again to be taken up and shaped by immigrants, many of them refugees from Southeast Asia. Vietnamese Buddhists formed the Asian American Buddhist Association of Philadelphia and raised and borrowed $130,000 to purchase the now-empty Clef Club. On Christmas Day, 1994, Chua Bo De, Philadelphia’s first Vietnamese Buddhist Temple was opened, welcoming worshipers from the entire region.
Soon after that, tragedy struck in the new temple. In 1995, A monk was stabbed to death by a mentally ill homeless man he had befriended, delaying the extensive renovations and alterations to the old school into a house of worship until the end of 1997. Today, the exuberantly decorated Chua Bo De is one of two Buddhist Temples in Philadelphia and one of three in the region. Despite the use of stucco and glassblock windows, the 127-year-old building is looking better than it has in a century.