What a little love and attention can do. Take something on the verge of being left behind and forgotten, then make it shine again. That dynamic was on display on April 12 at a construction groundbreaking celebration in North Philadelphia.
The three-story structure at 2309 N. Broad Street stands out among its neighbors. Sandwiched by ornate Victorian neighbors, the building announces itself with a flattened rectangular facade, six faux-doric columns, and floral embellishments. Most prominent of all, above the boarded up and broken windows are white embossed letters that announce “Philadelphia Electric Company.”
On the sidewalk a crowd of several dozen gathered, mostly suit-and-tie types–politicians, benefactors, architects–that normally turn out for a construction project’s groundbreaking. But among them were also a dozen or so teenagers, donning hardhats and black hoodies. These are the people who will soon actually call the building home.
The $25 million redevelopment project aims to transform the nearly century-old building into a new headquarters for YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School. The two-year program offers some of the city’s most at-risk young people a new shot at careers in fields like healthcare, culinary arts, and the building trades.
“This represents opportunity, and it represents hope,” State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta succinctly concluded outside the building’s opened doors.
Welcome to PECO. Would You Like to Buy a Stove?
The building, constructed in 1930 and designed by John T. Windrim, has a bit of an odd history for a former PECO property. Unlike many such buildings peppered around the city, it was not used in the generation or transmission of energy, but instead to sell appliances.
Sam Olshin, an architect with Center City firm AOS Architects (and architect behind the Metropolitan Opera House’s restoration) says the building was originally used as a showroom for the utility company in a time when it also sold appliances. “You could go in and pay your bill, but also buy a refrigerator or a stove,” Olshin said.
It is not the only such building in Philadelphia. At 40th and Ludlow Streets in West Philadelphia, a Frank Furness-designed building was also used as a PECO showroom, among other uses, before being saved and redeveloped into a commercial space in recent years. Like the building on North Broad Street, that building also still bears the Philadelphia Electric Company namesake. PECO got out of the appliance business in the 1970s, Olshin said, and by the 2000s the North Broad building was changing hands between religious institutions. First, city records show, by a series of entities associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses and then by the Manna Bible Institute, which relocated to Wynewood in 2019.
Making Use of Good Bones
Currently, the building is a shell. Its interior is entirely gutted. T-shaped, the length of the building tapers slightly halfway to the rear. A high first-floor ceiling leaves it with only a second additional floor, which is also gutted.
A complete overhaul is planned by the summer of 2024. According to a model and blueprints available at the groundbreaking, as well as explanations from AOS employees, the building will be converted into three floors with another level added between the existing first and second. The floor of the new second story will stop short of the front of the building, allowing for an open-air mezzanine.
Each floor will then be subdivided into classrooms, workspaces, and other educational environments such as a library and emotional support rooms for students. Olshin said the sturdy construction of the building’s walls and floors will lend itself well to the dirt, grease, and physical exertions of technical training. Currently, YouthBuild is renting space in a nearby building, which staff said is not always conducive to technical training.
“It’s built like a tank,” Olshin said of the old PECO building, adding that it was picked from a list of more than 60 locations all over the city. “We were looking for something with heavy duty floors, big windows, a little bit of outdoor space, and close to public transportation.”
Olshin was noncommittal when asked if the original facade would be restored to its original look. He said several elements, such as the bronze adornments, had been vandalized or stolen. The building is not listed for legal protections on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, thus its exterior renovation is not under the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. But, he expressed admiration for the building’s history and a desire to keep the facade. “We’re trying to recreate some of the missing elements and put it back,” Olshin said. “It’s so distinctive in this neighborhood. We want to get the kids appreciating preservation in addition to new construction.”
Regardless, new bells and whistles are planned. Olshin said the building is set for a green redevelopment, with insulated windows and high efficiency mechanical systems. Utility meters will be freely accessible for students to review and analyze consumption. The plans also call for rooftop solar and a new open-air deck constructed on top of the building with a built-in vegetable garden.
A New Home for Students
If the project stays on schedule, staff are hoping for a summer 2024 ribbon-cutting ceremony ahead of the building’s opening for the 2024-25 school year. That would mark a transformative moment for YouthBuild, which has been without a permanent home throughout its 31-year history in the city. The redevelopment is being paid for through a mix of donations, loans, and state and federal funds. Lawmakers said at the groundbreaking that they are still working on securing over $1 million in additional state funding to complete the budget.
YouthBuild is designed for students aged 17 to 20 who have some level of high school education, but do not have a degree. It attracts many teenagers who may have dropped out, been kicked out of other schools, or otherwise are on the verge of heading down a negative path. Staff believe that the investment in the building is also a sign of faith in the program’s students. “I’m incredibly proud to be standing in front of a building that a year from now will send a very loud and clear message to our youth,” said Scott Emerick, YouthBuild executive director. “That message will be that we see you, that we love you, that we respect you and we believe in you.”
Since its inception in 1991, the program has graduated more than 3,200 students, according to the organization’s website. Perhaps none of those graduates were more excited at the groundbreaking than 2020 alumnus Fils Iragena. An immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, program leaders said Iragena started to dream of becoming an architect after joining YouthBuild. Now enrolled in architecture coursework at the Community College of Philadelphia, Iragena was named this year as “the most promising architectural student in Philadelphia” by the National Organization of Minority Architects. Iragena worked as an intern under Olshin at AOS Architects as the firm developed the designs for 2309 North Broad Street. “It was simply amazing, and gave me an opportunity to give back,” Iragena said, while holding a model of the building he constructed and pointing out its newly planned mezzanine. “Students will be coming in, seeing this beautiful mezzanine, big stairs, with books all around.” With a scholarship in hand, he is currently eyeing enrollment in an architecture school.