Marked Potential: District Health Center #1



District Health Center #1 is ripe for the reusing | Photo: Michael Bixler

Authors Note: In order to save old buildings they ultimately need to be put back into use. If their original function is no longer relevant, they should be adapted for the contemporary city. With Marked Potential, I intend to explore the idea of adaptive reuse from a practical design standpoint. Every month I will feature a building that is vacant, slated to be razed, or simply underutilized. A potential use for that building will be identified and a rough, schematic design with that specific use in mind will be produced.

Marked Potential is an exercise and an exploration. It’s a way of showing that, with a little creative thought, developers can overcome the constraints of reusing more difficult historic structures. The intent of this series is primarily to show that these structures still have inherent architectural, functional, and social value. Of course, an intensive study and critical understanding of a specific project would be required to realistically implement any reuse plan in order for it to be successful. Through this series we just want to get the conversation going. Hopefully we can save some buildings along the way.

District Health Center #1 – Marked as an Arts Therapy Center

The District Health Center #1 building at Broad and Lombard Streets is a strong example of mid-century modern architecture, inside and out. The geometry of the building–designed by Montgomery and Bishop–and the space planning and materiality epitomizes the Modernist style of the 1960s.

Exterior1 Exterior3

District Health Center #1, 1961 | Source: Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Center #1 is currently being used by the City’s Department of Public Health as a public health clinic. The interior includes dedicated spaces for examination rooms, laboratories, and administrative offices. According to the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, the city has proposed vacating the building and relocating its facility to West Philadelphia.

Most of the interior photos available are in black and white. As you can see below in these photos from a pamphlet in the University of Pennsylvania architectural archives, the structure is cleanly representative of the era and quite beautiful. Current interior photos are difficult to come by, as the administrators of Center #1 are bound to protect the privacy of the healthcare center’s patients.

Interior1 Interior2 Interior3

Interior views from the 2nd floor | Source: Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Marked Potential began with the assumption that every building I examined would result in an exploration of a very different utilization than the building’s former use. However, after examining the Integrated Project Dossier by seven Historic Preservation graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania, it became quite clear that Center #1 should continue being used for healthcare. Many other projected reuses could have the potential of feeling forced. This ties back to Louis Kahn’s classic theoretical architectural question, “What do you want, Brick?” When we asked the structure what alternative uses would it find suitable, Center #1 seemed to unwaveringly answer, “I want to continue on as a facility for wellness.”

With healthcare in mind, we tried to take a step back and look at the big picture. Placed at the intersection of Broad and Lombard Streets, Center #1 is surrounded by vibrant performing arts venues. The University of the Arts is located across the street. It would only seem natural to repurpose the building as a center for arts therapy, specifically, a wellness facility focused on visual art, music, and dance therapy.

Classic Modernist exterior lettering | Photo: Michael Bixler

Classic Modernist exterior lettering | Photo: Michael Bixler

The exterior and interior architecture of Center #1 is still in good shape. It was well designed with both function and aesthetics in mind and could be reworked with minimal effort. Any new equipment would be accommodated as needed, though keeping the original floor plan mostly intact is a priority. To the project’s advantage, mid-century modern is popular again, nominally at least for furniture and lighting. Many of the classics have been remade, and the originals are in high demand. Pieces such as the Womb chair and Saarinen dining table are as recognizable now as they were over 50 years ago.

Ground Level Floor Plan

/Users/shilagriffith/Google Drive/SG23 Design/Hidden City/District Health #1/Arts Therapy.dwg

1. Reception | 2. Waiting Room | 3. Conference Room | 4. Men’s Restroom | 5. Women’s Restroom | 6. Accounting and Marketing |        7. Kitchenette | 8. Filing and Nurses’ Station | 9. Gallery | 10. Copy Room

The ground level, as shown below, will feature a large reception area and include a grand piano and art gallery. The existing auditorium would be updated as needed, but will remain in the same space. Two conference rooms will face Broad Street, while another small, less formal conference room could be placed on the opposite side of the building, used mostly for casual employee meetings. The ground floor will also have a classroom for workshops, lectures, and small-scale seminars.

The flooring in the public spaces, with the exception of the auditorium, will consist of polished concrete. The remaining semi-private and private rooms will be carpeted for soundproofing. Acoustic ceiling tile will be implemented where possible to further aid in noise reduction.

Second Level Floor Plan

/Users/shilagriffith/Google Drive/SG23 Design/Hidden City/District Health #1/Arts Therapy.dwg

1. Administrative Offices | 2. Dance & Music Therapy Rooms | 3. Administrative Support | 4. Break Room | 5. Mens’ Locker Room |       6. Womens’ Locker Room | 7. Open Art Instruction Studios | 8. Mens’ Restroom | 9. Women’s Restroom | 10. General Storage |                   11. Waiting Room

Staying true to the original floor plan, the second level of the arts therapy center will remain open. However, departing from its current use as a work and filing area, it will serve as a space dedicated to art instruction. Along the perimeter of the second level private therapy rooms for both music and dance therapy will be installed. The partitions between each of the rooms will need to be insulated to prevent sound transmission. To take advantage of the unique, preexisting geometry of the spaces, the shallow recesses adjacent to the entry of each of the therapy rooms will provide wall space to showcase artwork by patients. The corner offices will be dedicated to the administrative staff.

Third Level Floor Plan

/Users/shilagriffith/Google Drive/SG23 Design/Hidden City/District Health #1/Arts Therapy.dwg

1. Administrative Offices | 2. Art Therapy Rooms | 3. Music Therapy Rooms | Conference Room | 5. Art Supply Storage | 6. Copy Room | 7. Mens’ Locker Room | 8. Women’s Locker Room | 9. General Storage | 10. Waiting Room

The third level will feature more rooms designated for therapy. The corner offices may be used as large, communal therapy rooms or additional administrative offices. Hallway seating will be provided in the recesses adjacent to each entryway of the smaller therapy rooms to further utilize the unique geometry of the interior. The center atrium will overlook the second floor and allow visitors to casually observe the open art classes below.

About the author

Shila is an NCIDQ certified and LEED accredited interior designer that also practices interior architecture. She holds both a bachelor’s degree in interior design and master’s degree in sustainable design from Philadelphia University. In 2012, Shila started SG23, a small studio that offers design services spanning interior design, graphic design and website design and development. She also teaches a design studio in the continuing education program at Moore College of Art and Design.


  1. Really great ideas here, and i hope that unique building gets great adaptive reuse.

  2. Do we have a strategy to acquire the building and repurpose it for what you want to see happen? That means a group must be formed to help move the project on.

  3. I like the idea of a arts-based health center. How about a collaboration between UArts and Jefferson?

  4. Yeah let’s put a 47-story building there on top of a 7-story windowless parking garage. That way Dranoff’s Symphony House can lose their views like everybody else. Why not put the SLS piece of junk in front of the Symphony House pink wedding cake disaster? Seems appropriate.

  5. Sounds like Bob could use some art therapy to calm down.

  6. Nice ideas. I love this building. It looks like a space that would work for many types open-plan offices or work sharing groups. I hope someone can do something with it to keep it there and beautiful.

  7. I’ve been so inspired by this building in the time I’ve spent in there. It definitely needs a lot of tlc, but I agree that it is deserving of a thoughtful restoration. It doesn’t appear to have undergone much, if any, renovation since being built in the 60’s and it’s falling apart, but the original touches are all still there and are really cool to see.

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