Rebuilding More Than Places

May 13, 2024 | by Starr Herr-Cardillo

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Spring 2024 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

Terrence Finley didn’t set out to get into construction. Up until about a year ago, the 32-year-old was working in an entirely different field when his cousin sent him a link to sign up for a carpentry academy, part of the city’s Rebuild initiative, which trains cohorts in partnership with Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. Intrigued, Finley applied and, before he knew it, was one of the program’s top participants, building skylight covers to protect and weatherproof roofs at the National Historic Landmark.

Terrence Finley, an apprentice with Local 164 of the Carpenters Union, works outside the Kingsessing Recreation Center. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Less than a year later, Finley landed a full-time apprenticeship with Local 164 of the Carpenters Union. Smith Construction, his sponsor, is the general contractor on the rehabilitation of Kingsessing Library, a historically designated Carnegie library undergoing a $7 million upgrade by Rebuild, the Kenney administration initiative launched in 2016 to tackle deferred maintenance in Philadelphia’s public parks, libraries, and recreation centers.

Rebuilding Community Infrastructure–Rebuild, as it’s usually called–wasn’t conceived as a preservation initiative, but in many ways, it is one. Rebuild takes a multifaceted approach, working primarily with existing buildings and sites, some of which are historically designated, addressing deferred maintenance and making much-needed updates.

Perhaps too ambitious in scope for its own good, when the Kenney administration launched Rebuild in 2016, the goal was to address 72 sites. But several years later, only 17 projects have been completed. That said, they have only spent about $120 million of the $500 million initially envisioned.

Union carpenter Phil Mascio builds a door trim surround at Kingsessing Library. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Rebuild, at its core, is an effort to infuse hundreds of millions of dollars into neglected community resources across the city. This type of public infrastructure is critical to any city’s health, but especially a large, poor city like Philadelphia where many of its hundreds of playgrounds, parks, and recreation centers provide services to historically underserved neighborhoods.

Rebuild bills itself as a public-private partnership, with a funding structure supported largely by philanthropic groups like the William Penn Foundation, which has pledged up to $100 million toward the cause, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and others. Another key funding source is the Sweetened Beverage Tax passed in 2016, although it remained tied up in litigation until 2018. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck another blow to Rebuild’s ambitious timeline, wreaking havoc on the global supply chain and causing massive delays, price surges, and uncertainty across the construction industry. Rebuild’s slower-than-planned progress has not come without its share of challenges and scrutiny. But it’s worth noting that despite the setbacks, the initiative has made a good faith effort to stay true to its lofty values.

Holistic Repairs

Rebuild’s approach to projects is meant to extend beyond the physical rehabilitation of buildings and infrastructure. It’s a holistic approach that centers people in the process. “[Rebuild] is as much about the people as it is about the place,” said Kira Strong, executive director of Rebuild, when asked how the initiative connects to preservation. “I think preservation has really moved [toward] the people part of things.”

For many large-scale projects, community engagement can too often feel perfunctory, but it can be transformative–for residents and the project–when given adequate time and effort. Rebuild also promised to cultivate training opportunities, particularly among women and people of color, for Philadelphia residents looking to break into the building trades. That’s an ambitious goal in and of itself and has gained traction thanks to a partnership with Eastern State Penitentiary’s Preservation Trades Center. In addition, the initiative is intentionally cultivating a portfolio of contractors that includes a high percentage of women-and minority-owned businesses, another commitment that has a big impact, but can slow down progress, as onboarding new vendors and working with smaller firms can take more time.

Participants in the carpentry training program at Eastern State Penitentiary, co sponsored by the city’s Rebuild initiative. | Photo courtesy of Rebuild

It’s been a learning curve, but Finley’s trajectory is exactly what the team behind Rebuild wants to see. “The transition from Eastern State [Academy] to actually getting full-on apprenticeship with the carpenters union, that was basically set up by Rebuild,” said Finley. He’s being modest. He was still required to complete the interview, skills assessment, and math assessment as any applicant would. But trades academy participants are evaluated during the six-week program, and companies like Smith Construction make note of attendees who show promise.

It’s probably more likely that workforce training grads who move into union apprenticeships like Finley will find themselves working on new construction more than historic buildings, which is why the early exposure to the specific challenges and process of working at historic sites through the trades academy is so valuable. Finley says what he learned about preservation at Eastern State is coming into play at Kingsessing Library. Part of the process involved painstakingly removing and reinstalling historic millwork in the reading room. “It’s a slower, more meticulous process,” Finley said. “You learn a lot more because when you’re removing things and putting it back, you need to record and label everything.” Finley is specializing in general carpentry, and he expects to work on a range of projects. He finds all of the work interesting, including the precision required for older buildings. “I would say you get a real sense of pride putting something like that together … knowing that this building was standing a hundred years ago and the work that I do here could help keep it standing for another hundred years.”

Dedicating Resources for the Public Good

The provision of public amenities like recreation centers, playgrounds, and libraries came about in the mid-19th century, along with the rise in indoor plumbing. Reform movements aimed to supply public baths, particularly to poorer families who could not afford private bath houses. According to the Philadelphia Department of Recreation, nine free public bath houses were built in Philadelphia between 1884 and 1898. In 1906, a group called the Playground Association of America was formed, followed the next year by the Playgrounds Association of Philadelphia. These organizations advocated for the creation of public playgrounds, highlighting them as places where children could learn to be good citizens. Soon, the initiative was formalized through Philadelphia’s city government when a Playgrounds Committee was formed to assess the need for additional recreation areas across the city, which ultimately led to a bill launching the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. The first city-funded facility–Starr Garden Playground and Recreation Center–opened in 1911, and by 1928, the City boasted 48 distinct recreation sites, 14 of which had buildings with gymnasia and 37 of which had public pools.

Top: Starr Garden, the first recreation center built by the City of Philadelphia, shown here in a 1913 Board of Recreation report. Bottom: Kingsessing Library front elevation. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Around the same time, industrialist and steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated more than $40 million to fund 1,679 libraries across the United States. The Kingsessing Library, on 51st Street between Kingsessing and Chester Avenues, was the 22nd Carnegie library in Philadelphia. It is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in the Carnegie Library Thematic Historic District, along with four other Rebuild sites. Kingsessing Library is a classic Carnegie design. Light streams into the reading room through the large windows, and the high ceilings and open floor plan make the space feel ample and inviting. It shares a block-sized parcel with Kingsessing Recreation Center, built in 1916 and one of the city’s earliest recreation centers. Both are undergoing major upgrades and renovations through Rebuild, while preserving the building envelopes and historic detailing.

“Our goal is to be rebuilding and renovating existing buildings,” said Angela Dixon, Rebuild’s deputy director of design and construction, although she noted that many need serious retrofitting to be brought up to code. “ADA accessibility is a big factor,” she added. While the majority of Rebuild’s projects involve some form of reuse, when they are not working with historically designated buildings, there are times when they opt for new construction. “One of our new buildings in construction now is Vare Recreation Center. It had a lot of structural issues, and it was determined that a new building would better suit the site and community.” Following a cost-analysis, structural assessments, and rounds of community engagement, Rebuild made the call that the block-sized site in south Philadelphia could better serve the desired needs with the freedom to totally reorient the building.

Community Heirlooms

Kingsessing is one of Rebuild’s largest sites. It includes two historic buildings located on a block-sized parcel and needed a significant amount of design work to bring buildings up to code. The combined $32 million investment will cover top-to-bottom work on both buildings, including ADA upgrades–like an elevator for the library–a new HVAC, an outdoor story circle, and a new turf field. Throughout the project, Rebuild leaders say they’ve remained committed to community engagement and wanted to be responsive to the feedback they’ve received, which has stretched the project timeline. The Kingsessing projects have a committed core stakeholder group, said Strong, and they’ve remained engaged throughout the process, although some have expressed frustration with the timeline.

The Kingsessing Recreation Center entrance hall. | Photo courtesy of Rebuild

Still, Rebuild’s commitment to the community engagement process is impressive. For the Kingsessing site alone, the program held six public meetings and numerous smaller “touchstone” meetings with key stakeholders. It circulated four public surveys that generated more than 800 responses, 87 percent of which came from within a 10-block radius and 50 percent within a three-block radius of the site.

“I think it’s interesting to not just talk about historic preservation, but preservation of a neighborhood,” said Cassie O’Connel, a senior project manager overseeing the Kingsessing Library and Recreation Center projects. “There’s a long history of people in the neighborhood being involved with programming, a lot of cultural memory and events that have happened at these sites.” That cultural memory and associated values and concerns came through in the process. Rebuild reviewed survey data and looked for common themes and issues across responses.

Amanda Colon-Smith, Rebuild’s community engagement director, likens these sites to community heirlooms. “People want to pass this down to the next generation,” she said. “We always work very closely with folks who are history keepers and culture keepers.”

Soliciting community input for the rehabilitation of the Kingsessing Recreation Center and Library. | Photo courtesy of Rebuild

Moving forward, it’s important to the Rebuild crew that sites are maintained well and often so that such massive overhauls won’t be necessary in the future. Dixon said they are working very closely with Parks and Recreation so that they understand future maintenance needs. “We really do have maintenance in mind when doing the design work,” she said.

Despite the bumpy start, Rebuild’s completed projects have been successful. There’s no guarantee that the initiative itself will be maintained. Mayor Cherelle Parker has said she intends to continue the program, although she’s suggested her administration will conduct a review to identify areas of inefficiency. Most good preservation work takes time. Now that Rebuild has made it past the initial hurdles and has ironed out the process, maybe it’s worth recalibrating expectations. After all, good things are worth waiting for.


About the Author

Starr Herr-Cardillo is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. When she’s not covering local preservation issues or writing editorials for Hidden City, she works as a historic preservation professional in the nonprofit sector. Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Herr-Cardillo was drawn to the field by a deep affinity for adobe and vernacular architecture. She holds a Certificate in Heritage Conservation from the University of Arizona and an M.S. in Historic Preservation from PennDesign.


  1. I made a comment on the IG Hidden City feed. I love that work is being done on these buildings. I grew up going to the Kingsessing Library as a boy. I would borrow the book, Life of Lou Gehrig. The librarian knew me and would save that book for me after the two week limit. I would come back the next day and she would save the book because she knew I would come back to reread it again and again. The Kingsessing Rec. Center was my other home away from home where I didn’t want to be. I signed up for baseball by myself and played Little League baseball all summer and basketball at the Rec center all winter. Thank you for that stroll down memory lane.

  2. J says:

    This feels like more like a press release than journalism. Everything here seems to be from sources within Rebuild. There are definitely neighbors of Kingsessing Library and Rec Center who have different perspectives than what is expressed here, and have some legitimate concerns about the process and plans. These people are not hard to find.

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