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.
Ralph J. Roberts Boys & Girls Club of Germantown
Heckendorn Shiles Architects (HSA) worked with the Daniel J. Keating Company to restore the historic Germantown Boys & Girls Club, a building on the verge of demolition, into a 21st century facility for the Germantown community. Principal Matt Heckendorn talked with Extant about the challenges involved in preserving original features and creating new spaces in the project, which won a 2023 Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance.
Extant Magazine (EM): What was the original use of the building?
Matt Heckendorn (MH): The Colonial Revival-style clubhouse was built for the Boys & Girls Clubs organization in 1898, with an addition, designed by the eminent Philadelphia architect Mantle Fielding Jr., completed in 1909.
The original club was well designed more than 100 years ago for the needs of that time, such as playing parlor games with limited physical activity. Our task was to redesign the club to serve the needs and interests of modern, very active young people.
EM: What was most important to preserve?
MH: We focused on the central atrium, which connects the original building and addition, and encompasses nearly 25 percent of the building footprint. This was the building’s heart, vital from the perspective of the user’s experience. So, maintaining the atrium and enhancing its character, all while ensuring it functioned as a means to access the renovated spaces, became key design goals for the project.
EM: What was the client’s original vision?
MH: Prior to HSA’s involvement, the Boys & Girls Club considered razing the existing structure and constructing a new facility. HSA worked with the club to review three options: demolition and rebuild, facade preservation and rebuild, or full preservation and renovation. After reviewing the design opportunities and consulting with the community, the club ultimately chose the third option.
Full preservation involved rehabilitating the facade, installing a new roof, updating the infrastructure, and completely renovating the interior. At the client’s directive, the new spaces we created include a literacy center, learning center, tech center, teen center, gym, music room, café, and game room.
EM: What was the biggest preservation challenge?
MH: Architectural design decisions made in the past, and construction of the original building in two phases, resulted in a four-story building with seven different levels! This created something of a nightmare for accessibility to parts of the building and in supervising the young people using the facilities. We thoroughly evaluated the composition of the spaces, the stairways and transitions to different levels, and how they connected to the atrium. We then redesigned the spaces to function as a 21st-century Boys & Girls Club.
EM: What was the project’s biggest surprise (good or bad)?
MH: The project was under construction when the pandemic broke out. In spite of the complications of dealing with the pandemic, the general contractor, Daniel J. Keating Company, worked thoughtfully to minimize those impacts and keep the project on schedule and on budget.