A 10th anniversary celebration of a Fishtown landmark's rebirth

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Marie Lederer Senior Center was formerly St. Mary's Hospital, where generations of Fishtown residents were cared for. Today, it is home to low-income seniors, many of whom were born in the hospital.

Judging by the construction and the repurposed industrial buildings surrounding it, the former St. Mary's Hospital at Frankford Avenue and Palmer Street in Fishtown might well have become just another apartment complex awaiting an influx of renting millennials.

But in 2006, Fishtown's housing boom was a few years away.

The venerable St. Mary's, where generations of residents had been born and cared for, had been in financial trouble since the late 1980s. There had been a city bailout loan that turned it into a 200-bed, for-profit hospital, yet financial problems persisted, and that hospital, Neumann Medical Center, operated at a deficit, articles at the time reported.

Temple University bought Neumann Medical Center in the 1990s, but decided to close it.

Recognizing the building's importance to the neighborhood, then-State Rep. Marie Lederer asked that the closing be delayed until a use could be found for the structure that would continue its tradition of service to western Fishtown.

Her exact words: "to make sure something good happens here."

On Sept. 28, Lederer and a host of officials, Fishtowners, and others gathered at the former St. Mary's, at 1601 E. Palmer St., to mark the 10th anniversary of what is now the Marie Lederer Senior Center. Its 69 spacious one-bedroom units, carved from wards and operating rooms, are home to low-income seniors, many of whom had been born there.

Though St. Mary's closing was acutely felt in Fishtown, the need for subsidized housing to accommodate an aging neighborhood population was, and is, critical as market-rate development puts an even-tighter squeeze on longtime residents.

Eric Leighton of architecture firm Cecil Baker + Partners of Philadelphia, among whose specialties is designing publicly subsidized rental units, recalled an early visit to the hospital to take measurements of the 112,468-square-foot building, which opened in 1898 and was enlarged in 1915.

"I was there with two others who were using a tape measure," he said. "When we were taking measurements in the psychiatric ward, security guards were there to direct patients around us as we worked."

The neighborhood was rough, said Leighton and Nancy Bastian, another partner at Cecil Baker who worked on the project and recently was architect for St. Francis Villa for seniors in East Kensington.

"Palmer Park [across from the hospital entrance] was 'needle park,' " Bastian said, and the walk from the Berks El station a few blocks west on Front Street was dicey.

These days, staffers say, residents spend the nicer days safely outdoors.

Financing for the $12 million project, which began in 2004, was primarily Section 202 HUD funding targeted to housing for low-income seniors, with city and state money, Bastian said.

Development was sponsored by the nonprofit North County Conservancy Inc., whose owner, Ted Robb, is a former regional director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development who had experience in building low-income housing for seniors, Leighton said.

HUD 202 funding means that "seniors are guaranteed never having to pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent," Bastian said.

The building is eligible for National Register of Historic Places status, and sits within the eligible Fishtown National Register Historic District.

Leighton said it was critical that the reuse design "honored the existing facades."

The exterior was returned to its initial design, with the most significant restoration work on the windows - many of which were altered in previous renovations to reduce energy costs, Leighton said.

The new windows are aluminum-clad wood or wood, and all have accurate historic profiles, he said.

"This building was made to serve, and continues to serve to this day," said the building manager, Tracy E. Richardson.

"Though the service is different now, sometimes the people are the same," she said.

aheavens@phillynews.com

215-854-2472@alheavens

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