As far as local historian and preservationist Celeste Morello is concerned, Philadelphia is missing a huge opportunity.
There are dozens upon dozens of school buildings across the city, standing prominently, stabilizing neighborhoods, adding value with their architectural significance. From the old Thaddeus Stevens School at 13th and Spring Garden Streets, to the old West Philadelphia High School at 47th and Walnut Streets, structures that were once or are currently part of the School District of Philadelphia’s system, Morello believes, are just as much a part of the city’s history as William Penn or Wawa.
Which is why, she said, it’s so surprising that very few of them are historically protected by the city. Most could be razed or demolished, altered or forgotten. Without historic designation from the Philadelphia Historical Commission, properties designed by some of the city’s foremost architects, and constructed as million-dollar projects, could be erased after decades, perhaps even a century.
“These school designs tell a story,” said Morello, who has worked to preserve dozens of city properties. “And it’s important for [kids] to know more of the history, to know they are going to school in a historic place.”
So last year, Morello took it upon herself: She began researching George Washington Public School in South Philadelphia. Beyond the bold, geometric architecture designed by Irwin T. Catharine and the bas-relief sculptures at its entrance, Morello wanted to find out more about the building she long has considered “unique and beautiful.”
And she did. The site, since renamed Vare-Washington School, was once the home of Philadelphia’s prominent Wharton family, Morello found; it once hosted a party for British troops on the day they were supposed to leave the city. When Irwin Catharine built the school in 1935, the country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Still, the project survived.
By last summer, Morello had enough: She compiled her findings, typed up 35 pages, and submitted an application for historic designation to the Philadelphia Historical Commission. This year, it was approved.
In receiving the local designation, George Washington Public School joins an elite group protected from significant alteration. According to data from the Philadelphia Historical Commission, only seven of the school district’s more than 200 public schools have received it. Even more, the data show, George Washington Public School is the first district school to receive historic designation in nearly 17 years.
For the seven current and former schools — George Washington school, the former Robert Ralston school in Queen Village, Laura Wheeler Waring Public School in Spring Garden, the former Edgar Allen Poe School (now the site of the Girard Academic Music Program) in Girard Estate, Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Spring Garden, Gen. George A. McCall Public School in Society Hill, and Franklin Learning Center in Spring Garden — protection by the city Historical Commission ensures that parts of the schools’ past will be preserved.
When a property receives such designation, the local panel becomes a regulator, of sorts, reviewing every proposed alteration that requires a building permit or that changes the facade.
The local classification is different from the National Register of Historic Places, which has designated more than 90,000 sites nationwide. It is estimated that more than 150 of Philadelphia’s public schools are on the national list, though protections offered at that level are minimal: Properties can still be renovated or demolished as an owner pleases. Mostly, the national register exists to offer historic tax credits or federal grants when funds are available.
“There are no coordinated efforts to [locally] designate [Philadelphia’s] schools,” said Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. “It’s been sporadic — we’ve had some offhand conversations about doing them all at once,” but so far, nothing has materialized.
Advocates have been pushing for local preservation to prevent the city’s current stock of schools from meeting the same fate as others, including the former University City High School and Charles Drew Elementary School site in University City, demolished by Drexel University in 2015. Or the former William Penn High School, demolished by Temple University to create the Temple Sports Complex in 2015. Plans exist for razing the Alexander Wilson Public School to create a six-story housing and community space for the University of the Sciences in West Philadelphia.
Troubled by budgetary woes years ago, the district began selling off schools in hopes of generating a nearly $60 million cash infusion. For this article, the district could not provide an updated list of schools that have been sold. Lee Whack, a district spokesman, confirmed that a 2015 report by WHYY that said the district had generated $42 million from school sales was “accurate,” but did not provide an updated total.
According to Michael Gallagher, a partner at Flynn Co., a real estate brokerage firm that has represented school district sales for 18 months, three buildings have been sold during that period for a total of $1.65 million. He said he is actively negotiating three other properties, and one, Thomas Fitzsimons High School in Strawberry Mansion, is under agreement. Four buildings still await buyers.
Philadelphia schools are purchased for all kinds of uses. A handful across the city have been razed since their closing — decisions that have drawn vehement pushback — but many others have been redeveloped into apartments, public housing, and university buildings. Others are now charter schools.
“Historic school buildings are one of the more readily adaptable buildings to new uses — the way they lay out is conducive to residential or commercial uses or offices,” Steinke said. “Getting more of them locally [designated] will protect their significant features in the process of getting adapted for use.”
In many cases, developers have chosen to keep external facades intact, gutting the insides for reuse. This summer, West Lofts, is set to open, unveiling 139 loft-style apartments in the old West Philadelphia High School, priced at as much as $1,149 for a studio and $2,430 for a three-bedroom. As part of the amenities, developer Andrew Bank, of Strong Place Partners, has restored the indoor track in the gymnasium.
Other developers have big plans, too. Last month, Ori Feibush announced plans to redevelop the Walter Smith School in Point Breeze into apartments. And the Concordia Group, a Maryland-based developer that purchased five school district buildings for $6.8 million, plans to break ground on one of the schools, Abigail Vare School in Pennsport, in August to create 42 apartments and five townhouses.
Spokesman Whack did not respond to questions about whether the school district plans to push for Philadelphia Historical Commission designation of more of its remaining schools. But with many of the buildings operating with significant deferred maintenance — a report released this year said the project backlog totals $4.5 billion — Morello said it’s more important than ever to designate schools as historic, to prevent them from simply being demolished.
“Some [developers] do a wonderful job in incorporating and enhancing the original architecture,” Morello said. “But there are a lot of other schools that can just be razed. … And more schools should be designated like [George Washington].”