In its 129 years of life, the James Martin School in Port Richmond has seen two world wars, several global pandemics, and generations of Philadelphians come and go. Yet, its solid granite walls are still standing firm, seemingly unscathed. But not for much longer. The three-story building’s days are now numbered.
Barring any 11th-hour intervention, the James Martin School at 3380 Richmond Street is scheduled for demolition this month as part of the School District of Philadelphia’s plan to build a new, federally-funded, $62.8 million school on the site rather than reutilize the historic structure.
The existing building, designed by architect Joseph W. Anschutz and completed in 1896, was successfully added to the National Register of Historic Places decades ago. Yet, despite a 1922 building addition designed by celebrated Philadelphia school architect Irwin Catharine, the school was never added to the local historic register, which could have afforded protections against demolition of its exterior.
Adding to the intrigue, Bruce Bohri, spokesperson for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, said large-scale School District construction projects that utilize federal funding are typically subject to a review from the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, the same entity that nominated James Martin School to the National Register in 1988. However, the School District appears to be using funding disbursed through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), a federal COVID-19 stimulus package that, he noted, specifically exempts it from the historical review.
The planned demolition and its unusual circumstances aren’t sitting well with some neighbors and alumni of the school. Many have taken to social media to protest in the past few months, with Port Richmond resident Doris Lynch at the vanguard. “I love old buildings, and if there’s a way to save them, I don’t understand, why knock it down?” Lynch said. “The structure of it is fine, the exterior looks perfect.” The proposed demolition is listed on the School District’s website for June, but, so far, no permits have been filed with the City. This has led to an outpouring of support from neighbors and former students on a Save the James Martin School Facebook page. As of late May, 138 people had also lent their name to an online petition. However, few are holding out hope of last minute salvation. Opponents of the demolition claim the School District has largely remained silent to their entreaties. School District officials also did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, is already turning his eyes toward the future. In an era of high profile concerns over environmental hazards and obsolescence in Philadelphia’s public schools, he expects careful engagement will be needed to spare similar buildings from the wrecking ball. “Our focus is really on what we can do to get ahead of this,” Steinke said. “This one is probably not going to be saved.”
What is New Becomes Old
Three distinct eras are embedded within the story of James Martin School, presently a grade 6-8 school officially titled Alternative Middle Years (AMY 5) at James Martin. First is the signature of original architect Anschutz, who designed 76 schools during his 14-year tenure with the School District, which concluded in 1899. By the time James Martin School was nominated to the National Register in 1988, most Anschutz schools had already been demolished, leaving just 12 with “enough integrity for consideration,” the historic nomination noted.
Anschutz’s original U-shaped design for James Martin School left a solidly-built, three-story construction in the Romanesque style, highlighted by arched windows, portholes, and a crowning cornice. Compared to other extant Anschutz buildings such as George W. Childs Elementary School in Point Breeze and William Levering School in Roxborough, the nomination noted James Martin School’s uniqueness. “The Martin School survives as the only example of Anschutz’s use of Romanesque Revival ornamentation applied to an essentially utilitarian structure and further reflects his stylistic versatility,” it reads.
Just a quarter-century after its opening, the building received a sizable addition: a long wing on its left flank designed by Catharine. The son of a Philadelphia Board of Education chair, Catharine was even more prolific than Anschutz, designing more than 100 new School District buildings, creating new additions for 26, and renovating dozens more. Part of Catharine’s legacy was modernization–providing in-facility uses such as cafeterias and bathrooms, whereas some schools previously relied on outhouses and sent their students home for lunch.
The 1988 nomination notes Catharine typically designed both new construction and additions in Collegiate Gothic, Georgian Revival, and Art Deco styles, but that his work adding onto James Martin School’s existing Romanesque style appears unique. “Catharine here retained the original character of Anschutz’s work, respected and adopted Anschutz’s vocabulary, and sought to follow the original design. This may be the last instance in which Catharine did not use a totally new design.”
Now, James Martin School stands in a new era where modernization efforts have come full circle. Particularly in recent years, health concerns over hazardous building materials such as asbestos and lead in the School District’s building fleet have surfaced, putting century-old structures in the spotlight. Recent surveying by the School District has found at least 293 of its 300 buildings contain asbestos, leading to six closures this year. That included Frankford High School, built in 1910, S. Weir Mitchell School, built in 1916, and Universal Vare Charter School, formerly the Edwin H. Vare Junior High School, which Catharine designed and was built in 1924. The status of these buildings moving forward, whether they will be remediated and reopened or face a different fate, remains up in the air. But environmental hazards aren’t the only consideration, as amenities and enrollment trends also drive decision making. “A number of schools lack air conditioning and have deferred maintenance,” Steinke added. “It’s sort of a wakeup call about the situation with Philadelphia’s aging schools.”
Destined for Demolition
Despite the seemingly last-minute shuffling over James Martin School, records show the School District has been eyeing the building for years. In 2013, the school’s students were nearly moved to another building. In 2017, a district-wide initiative evaluated buildings and scored them on their replacement values. A score of 45-60 percent indicated major renovation and 60 percent or over closing and replacement. Jame Martin School just made the cut, scoring a 59.22 percent, with an estimated repair cost of $19 million.
A 2020 update shows the score marginally improving and confirmed the foundation and stone exterior of the building remained in very good condition. Yet, massive upgrades were still needed–$9 million for a new HVAC system, $2.9 million to replace the building’s exterior windows, $2.3 million for interior finishes, and myriad additional priorities. The building also has no ramps and no elevator, which would cost another $1.1 million to install. “The systems are shot, the windows need to be replaced, there’s no air conditioning,” Steinke said. “There are a lot of drawbacks that have been caused by years of neglect and a lack of investment.”
Meanwhile, School District data also show enrollment is dropping at the school, from 425 in the school year ending 2020, to 393 the following year, 346 in 2022, and 242 this year.
Demolition became the answer in March 2022, when Board of Education meeting notes showed approval of a plan to use $145 million in federal funding to build three new schools: a James Martin School replacement, another replacement for the Lewis C. Cassidy School in Overbrook (a Catharine building razed in 2021), and the demolition and replacement of Thomas E. Holme Elementary in Torresdale. According to the minutes, the new building in Port Richmond will serve “550 6th-8th grade students in a, most likely, three-story, approximately 77,900 square foot space,” including 15 classrooms and a host of spaces for elective activities.
Balancing the Past with the Future
Steinke said it can be difficult to strike a balance between historic preservation of the City’s schools and offering modern facilities attractive to prospective students and parents. Despite the many historic buildings within the School District’s portfolio, just 10 are currently protected by a listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places according to the Planning Commission. Even still, there are arguments against adding every school that may warrant a nomination. “I think there are legitimate concerns about constraining the options of a critical agency that is perennially cash-strapped and whose job it is to educate our children,” Steinke said. “An aggressive nominating strategy may not be the most productive way of meeting our goals as a city and as a society.”
Nevertheless, in the wake of the planned demolition of James Martin School, Steinke said the Alliance has reached out to officials to try and start a conversation about other buildings it might be looking at for demolition and what other options could exist. However, the Alliance has “not yet gotten a response that we wanted,” said Steinke.
Similarly, Bohri with the Planning Commission said that while the agency reviews the Schools District’s capital improvement plans, the School District does not require its approval. Asked about the relationship between the School District and the Historical Commission, Bohri added, “When the District reaches out, the Historical Commission works with District about its capital plans for historic school buildings.”