Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Winter 2023 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
Frankford High School
Location: 5000 Oxford Avenue
Built in 1914 by Henry deCourcy Richards, Frankford High School exemplifies the late Gothic Revival architectural style. Frankford High began as the Northeast branch of Central High School. Set on a high point, the school, with its later additions built in the 1950s and 1960s, dominates the neighborhood’s landscape.
A Historic Resources Survey and Inventory of Philadelphia Public School Buildings conducted by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 2014 found the school to be individually eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 25 other Richards-designed schools are already listed on the National Register.
In April 2023, the School District of Philadelphia closed the school due to damaged asbestos found throughout the structure, forcing students to complete the school year virtually. The School District swiftly remediated asbestos in the newer wings of the school so that students could return to the building this fall. We hope remediation work will proceed in the 1914 section so that it too can be reopened safely. Renovating Frankford High’s historic interior will protect community character and preserve neighborhood history.
Unfortunately, demolition remains a threat, even though the School District’s own cost-benefit analysis shows demolition and new construction are more expensive and disruptive than renovating the existing building. The design and craft of the Richards building could not be duplicated in a modern building, and we encourage the School District not to strip the neighborhood of such significant history.
Blue Bell Tavern
Location: 7303 Woodland Avenue
Threat: Structural Damage
On July 27, 2023, a SEPTA trolley derailed and crashed into the Blue Bell Tavern at the intersection of Woodland Avenue and Cobbs Creek Parkway. The historic structure was built in 1766 by Henry Paschall as a rest stop along Kings Highway, a popular stagecoach route. George Washington and his soldiers frequented the tavern on many occasions during the Revolutionary War, and in 1777, it was the site of a battle during the British occupation of Philadelphia.
In 1819, an addition built on the east of the original structure nearly tripled the property’s footprint. In 1909, the tavern was acquired by the Commissioners of Fairmount Park, now the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation.
When the 19th-century addition was demolished in 1940 for the extension of Cobbs Creek Parkway, the original building was rehabilitated as a small house.
Until this summer’s accident, the property served as a caretaker’s home. The wayward trolley crashed through the front porch and exterior stone walls into the living room, causing an estimated $300,000 worth of damage. Fortunately, no one was injured. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the crash resulted from inoperable brakes and poor communication. The City is still evaluating the preservation options for the property, following a structural assessment, but the city hopes–along with all who care about Philadelphia history–that the structure can be faithfully restored. During its more than 250-year existence, the tavern survived two devastating fires and countless floods and should not succumb to this freak accident.
New Market Headhouse and Shambles
Location: 2nd and Pine Streets
Threat: Deferred Maintenance
America’s oldest extant marketplace was established in 1745 on 2nd Street, between Pine and Lombard. The first neighborhood offshoot of the central High Street Market, it was initially known as the New Market. Originally, the market extended only half a block above Lombard Street. In the 1760s, the shambles, a series of 16 paired brick piers supporting a gabled roof over a vaulted ceiling, were constructed in the center of 2nd Street. By 1795, the market extended from Pine to South Streets, with a two-story brick headhouse constructed at South Street to house volunteer fire companies. A twin headhouse was built in 1805 at Pine Street. Its cupola contained a bell that rang to announce the market’s opening.
The shambles between Lombard and South and the southern headhouse were demolished in the 1950s to create street-surface parking, but the surviving shambles and headhouse, owned by the City of Philadelphia, were saved from demolition, restored and named a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Another preservation effort mounted in the 1990s has put the shambles to effective use as a venue for a farmers market, outdoor dining and seasonal community events.
Recently, neighbors have become increasingly concerned about the condition of the headhouse and shambles, noting visible deterioration. The City leases the site to the South Street Headhouse District, which allows the Food Trust to operate a weekly Sunday farmers market. But who is responsible for the site’s maintenance is unclear and a topic of contention among the various stakeholders. What is clear, though, is that the structural integrity and historic character of the shambles and headhouse will be compromised if no one steps forward to address current conditions.
De Benneville Family Burial Ground
Location: 6460 N. Broad Street
In 1758, Dr. George de Benneville Sr. purchased 20 acres of land north of the city, setting aside a small plot for mortuary purposes. De Benneville was born in London to French parents and raised in the English Royal Court. He came to the colonies in 1741 for religious freedom. He was a preacher of the Universalist Church, introducing the religion to America.
Notably, following the Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War, de Benneville offered space in the family plot for two deceased British officers, General James Tanner Agnew and Lieutenant Colonel John Bird. When de Benneville died in 1793, his will, and that of many of his later descendants, stipulated resources for the upkeep of the burial ground. Even though the plot has shrunk as the roads surrounding it have been expanded and regraded, de Benneville’s small family cemetery survives today, enclosed by a stone wall in West Oak Lane just west of Broad Street.
In 1926, the Orphans’ Court of Philadelphia appointed the First Pennsylvania Company as the trustee of the property. Following a series of bank mergers, Wells Fargo now controls the trust that provides minimal care for the property. It was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1987 to protect the area, but the small site, easily overlooked, has suffered from a lack of upkeep.
A family descendant and preservationists are now considering setting up a nonprofit to oversee the site’s maintenance. The 17 people interred on this unusual plot of land tied to Philadelphia’s colonial history deserve respect through the proper maintenance of their final resting place.