Why raze a century-old Germantown Boys and Girls Club?

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Philadelphia want to demolish this 1898 building in Germantown designed by Mantle Fielding to make way for an ice hockey rink and new rec center. Not only would it be a loss for Germantown, they have barely raised any money for the new project. Without knowing what it would look like, it's impossible to say whether it would be appropriate for the residential neighborhood.

Speaking from the dais of the Enon Tabernacle West Baptist Church in Germantown one evening last month, Lisabeth Marziello painted a picture of rec center heaven. An executive for Philadelphia’s Boys and Girls Clubs, she wants to replace the organization’s century-old building on West Penn Street with a deluxe new facility equal to anything in the suburbs, complete with basketball courts, computer labs, and an indoor ice rink. Listeners were told that any student who sticks with the club’s hockey program through all four years of high school would receive a full college scholarship.

The crowd applauded enthusiastically. And why not? Marziello’s plan would be a dream come true for Germantown, a diverse neighborhood of elegant Victorian houses that also struggles with population loss, poverty, and blight. The problem is, the facility remains just that — a dream.

Two years have now passed since Marziello laid out her vision for a campus-size Boys and Girls Club at a news conference arranged by Comcast. At the time, the media giant and the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation announced they were jointly contributing $8 million to jump-start the project. Since then, Marziello has barely moved the needle on fund-raising. 

She has added just $2 million more, and now has only half of the $20 million needed to build the ice rink. There is still no architectural design, ordinarily an early step in any fund-raising campaign. Nor has her group made good on its promise to undertake a traffic study. Given the narrow, one-way streets bordering the site -- Penn and Coulter -- such data are essential if the club ever hopes to win over skeptical residents in the adjacent Penn-Knox neighborhood.

Yet, that slow progress hasn’t stopped Marziello from moving on plans to demolish the existing Germantown Boys and Girls Club, a graceful Colonial Revival building that has offered an after-school refuge for Germantown youth since 1898. 

Next Friday, she will appear at the Historical Commission to oppose an effort to place the building on the city’s Historic Register. Very likely, she will be accompanied by a team of lawyers, engineers, and preservation consultants who will argue that the 119-year-old building is an obsolete wreck, too far gone to be saved. They will claim preservation status will interfere with plans to build a first-class rec center in Germantown.

As appealing as Marziello’s vision is, the Historical Commission should resist their arguments. This building isn’t as bad as people at the Boys and Girls Club say it is.

I took a tour of the building this week with Marziello and project architect Matt Heckendorn (plus three public relations specialists who hovered at our backs). Starting in the basement, they took pains to flag every water stain and broken floor tile. They pointed out a one-story addition in the rear of the building where the roof had collapsed, and an old swimming pool filled with debris.

Yet despite Marziello’s repeated claims that the building is structurally unsound and potentially dangerous, the Boys and Girls Club still hosts a full slate of daily activities, including a day-care center and sports programs. The Department of Licenses and Inspections confirmed in an email that the building is fit for use. “It can absolutely be saved,” said Ken Weinstein, a Germantown developer who has examined the building.

My tour guides also seemed oblivious to the building’s history and its very real charms. Those include a stunning, third-floor basketball court with a canopy of intricate wooden rafters. Marziello dismissed the architecture as nothing special. But the historic nomination, prepared by preservationist Oscar Beisert, tells a very different story, one that tracks Germantown’s transition from a colonial village to a major industrial center. 

Designed by Mantle Fielding, the club was built during a period when workers were flooding into Germantown to staff its factories. They packed themselves into tiny rowhouses and spent long days in the mills. When school wasn’t in session, their children were left on their own, and they naturally roamed the streets, looking to amuse themselves. Horrified by the conditions, social reformers set up organizations like the Boys and Girls Club to provide structured activities and promote the value of education.

The Germantown club, which offered athletics and “parlor games” like pool, immediately proved too small for the demand. Fielding designed an addition in 1908. “By 1912,” Beisert told me, “the membership was touted as being the largest in the world.” Its Colonial Revival design, like other Philadelphia buildings from the period, was inspired by the national pride brought on during the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park.

Reading Beisert’s narrative, you can’t help but be struck by how much the goals of the Kenney administration’s Rebuild program echo those of the 19th-century reformers. Once again, the city hopes to use its rec centers to help students in working-class neighborhoods prepare for a better life.

Although Marziello’s concept for the new Germantown Boys and Girls club dovetails perfectly with that agenda, it is impossible to evaluate her plan without an architectural design. 

The existing clubhouse is a domestically scaled building that fits neatly into Penn-Knox’s dense mix of working-class rowhouses and stately Victorian houses. The replacement, however, would occupy the club's ball field and cover more than half of the 2.5-acre site, according to Heckendorn. At 65,000 square feet, it would be the size of a Home Depot. Traffic is the other problem. The site is bounded by two narrow one-way streets, one of which, Coulter, is already jammed with parents dropping their kids off at Germantown Friends School.

There are also aesthetic concerns. Because of the need to control humidity, skating rinks often end up as windowless boxes. Marziello and Heckendorn promise to give the new club a friendly street presence, but they also envision two surface parking lots, including one on Penn Street where the existing building now stands. Although the club does not directly face Germantown Avenue, the loss would be another blow for the street, one of the most historic stretches in all of Philadelphia. Why not incorporate the building into the new campus?

One more thing: Two years into planning for this lavish new Boys and Girls Club, Marziello’s group has had only one formal meeting with the neighborhood association, even though it will need that group's support to obtain a zoning variance for the project. "There should be more of a conversation," said Andy Trackman, who runs Germantown United, a community development group. 

Someday, Germantown may get the lavish new rec center it deserves. But it also makes sense to hold on to the one it already has.