Magnificent failure

William Penn High School on North Broad, state of the art in 1974, has been marked for closing. Theres plenty of blame to go around.

Who should we blame for the fact that North Philadelphia's William Penn High School is being targeted for closure - a mere 35 years after it opened as the biggest, most expensive, and best-equipped education building of its day?

Do we lay it on the architects, the celebrated firm of Mitchell/Giurgola, for designing a structure that was too complex and edgy for an underfunded urban school district?

Or, is it the fault of the educators who dreamed up the sprawling Broad Street showplace, with its television studios, designer theater, and Olympic-size swimming pool? How about the school district, which seems to change its educational philosophy every five minutes? Perhaps we could just blame the kids for failing to appreciate everything being done for them.

It's unlikely that much time will be spent on those questions as the School Reform Commission goes through the motions of seeking public comment on the planned closure over the next 90 days. There have been seven superintendents, not counting the acting ones, since the high school was conceived in 1966, so who's around to recall the dreams that inspired a noble folly like William Penn?

Too bad. A little more reflection would be useful because it's evident that today's educational fashions are already giving birth to tomorrow's William Penns all over Philadelphia.

For all its undeniable flaws, William Penn has moments of great beauty secreted behind its terrible prisonlike Broad Street facade. The high school was one of several ambitious projects developed by Superintendent Mark Shedd, a reformer who wanted to redress years of discrimination and bring quality schools to Philadelphia's poor neighborhoods, especially African American ones. It's no accident that William Penn was located prominently on North Broad Street, at the same intersection as the Freedom Theatre and the Rev. Leon Sullivan's Progress Plaza complex.

But William Penn was never supposed to be just a sop to disenfranchised North Philadelphia. The original plan was for a magnet school that would offer girls from all over the city specialized programs in media, medicine, hospitality, and business. The district envisioned a cluster of small academies set within a verdant educational campus.

Because this was a radical idea for the time, the school district reached out to one of Philadelphia's most cutting-edge designers, Romaldo Giurgola of Mitchell/Giurgola. The firm had just finished the United Fund building on the Parkway, and was demonstrating an ability to marry modern design with old-style Philadelphia urbanism.

Unfortunately, Shedd was long gone by the time the eight-year building effort ended in 1974. In any case, the planning for the new school had become top-down, rather than community driven. During the design process, the two-block-long building grew to a whopping 550,000 square feet - the size of the Convention Center - and its price tag tripled to almost $24 million.

To contain its burgeoning girth, Giurgola came up with the idea of five interconnected structures to house the different academies and create intimate teaching environments. He arranged the buildings around meandering green courtyards, still picturesquely planted today with willow trees, and graced with ballfields and basketball courts.

It sounds wonderful, but William Penn was denounced as a failure on the day it opened. Over the course of its development, the district had abandoned the original ideas that had determined its complex architectural form. The school was made co-ed. The magnet concept and the small academic houses were abandoned, and the courtyards fenced in.

And thanks to the district's near-pathological aversion to maintenance, the lavishly appointed school has been reduced to a battered wreck that is easy to loathe. The model campus that was designed for 3,000 has become a second-rate neighborhood high school with a student body of 600, and falling. Even so, in 1979 it still produced a girls track team that set national records and a nationally recognized student newspaper.

Today, all but one of the five buildings is locked tight. The fancy natatorium that houses the pool is inoperable, as are the model TV studios and the 500-seat auditorium, created by the theater innovator George C. Izenour.

When I toured the school the other day with a phalanx of district officials, they delighted in pointing out the impracticalities of the design - the uninsulated, bare concrete that was so fashionable in the '60s, the multiple staircases, split-level corridors, double-height rooms, and maddening open-classroom layouts.

I had previously known the building only from its fortressy Broad Street facade, and never liked it. Even several architects who worked on the project now admit the stingy horizontal windows make the front resemble a prison. But as I wandered its deserted, trash-strewn interiors, I was bowled over by their richness and variety, as well as the humanism that inspired the design.

Instead of the rote egg-carton school layout, Mitchell/Giurgola used angled walls and changes in height to sculpt remarkable volumes of space. This goes for the courtyards, too. I don't think I've ever seen a more elegant school cafeteria.

As I admired the way the architects installed partial walls to form cozy eating nooks in the soaring, sun-drenched room, district officials maintained a running narrative about the problems of policing such eccentric spaces.

For me, though, the experience was like walking into a Frank Gehry building for the first time. It's rare in a building today, especially an institutional one, to see so many creative architectural ideas in play at once. There's little doubt, of course, that such complexity is a big reason for William Penn's rapid fall from grace.

It's uncanny how much the school's strengths and weaknesses mimic those of Paul Rudolph's architecture school building at Yale University, a product of the same era and thinking. Recently renovated, it is now seen as a masterpiece. It's also interesting that the other gargantuan high school Giurgola designed in the early '70s, in the suburb of Columbus, Ind., remains a beloved institution.

During my tour, school officials repeatedly reminded me that William Penn was being closed because it was not "sustainable," the new buzzword that means it takes a lot of oil to fire up its boilers. It's absolutely true those concrete walls leach heat. But what's sustainable about abandoning a school building after just 35 years?

What will William Penn's fate be if it's closed?

It's frightening to think of North Broad Street burdened by the dead weight of another shuttered behemoth, like the Metropolitan Opera. It may be that William Penn's architecture is all wrong for the needs of the school district, but it's easy to see a college slipping into the shell.

The fight now should be to find some appropriate use for the campus. After 35 years, William Penn High School remains a treasure still waiting to be understood.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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