Changing Skyline: Germantown's classic, vacant landmarks

sky28z-600
The closing of the massive Germantown HS coincides with the temporary reopening of the also-massive Germantown Town Hall, closed since 1997, as part of the Hidden City Festival. The conjunction of events highlights the difficulty of reusing such historic white elephants, which weigh heavily on Germantown's struggling downtown, June 24, 2013. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

You couldn't have asked for a more dramatic illustration of Germantown's roller-coaster fortunes than two events that occurred side by side last week on a single block of Germantown Avenue.

As students streamed out of the neighborhood's century-old high school and its great doors thundered shut for the final time, the long-dormant town hall across the street was springing back to life. People climbed the sweeping staircase to its majestic rotunda before making their way to the meeting rooms for discussions on such diverse topics as starting a small business, developing cohousing, and crafting flags.

It was almost like old times at the stately, neoclassical landmark with the curved portico and slender bell tower.

Savor the moment. The misleadingly named Germantown Town Hall, which served as satellite offices for Philadelphia's government before closing in 1998 - a victim of its own grandiosity - is only temporarily back in business, courtesy of this year's Hidden City Festival.

The event, which is showcasing nine little-known historic buildings by opening them for public events, ends Sunday. And when it does, Germantown will find itself saddled with a remarkable cluster of four massive, vacant, government-owned white elephants in its struggling shopping district. Though no one needs to be reminded that there are dozens of such historic relics littered throughout Philadelphia, it is hard to think of another neighborhood that has such a high density of these heartbreakers.

Town Hall and the fire-ravaged YWCA sit barely two blocks apart on Germantown Avenue, just north of the key Chelten Avenue intersection. Now the void of emptiness is being enlarged with the School District's decommissioning of the high school and the neighboring Fulton Elementary School.

None of these four landmark buildings will be easy to bring back to life. The Hidden City Festival has given us a peek at Town Hall's elegant rooms, built in 1923 to assert Germantown's separate identity within Philadelphia. It is as palatial as municipal buildings come, dripping with ornate trim and pilastered walls. If the building seems familiar, it's because it is a copy of William Strickland's early 19th-century Merchants Exchange at Third and Walnut, miniaturized by architect John Penn Brock Sinkler.

Yet all that elegance translates into too much wasted space for modern needs. By one estimate, it would take $10 million to make it usable. And if that is the tab for Town Hall, one shudders to think about the cost of renovating Germantown High, which expanded over time to occupy an entire city block.

With so much excess inventory in one place, the city needs be realistic about the prospects for these landmarks. Even if there are no private buyers for the buildings now, and no public money to repair them, we know from experience that conditions change. It is the city's obligation to make sure the four buildings are viable when someone is ready to reuse them.

The fate of the YWCA building next to Vernon Park should stand as a cautionary tale. The handsome, early 20th century apartment building is a victim of the scandal at Germantown Settlement, the notorious social-service agency that squandered $100 million in public money in a series of fraudulent real estate schemes and went bankrupt in 2010.

The YWCA was one of the last properties that Germantown Settlement acquired - bought with a grant from the city. After the agency imploded, the historic building was allowed to sit idle and unsecured for years.

Vandals broke in and caused at least three fires. Now the city owns the gutted eyesore. Local developer Ken Weinstein hopes to buy the YWCA for senior housing, but fears it may be too far gone to be saved. "I've never seen metal so twisted," he told me.

The longer these landmarks remain unoccupied, the worse the impact will be on Germantown's commercial district. But the damage can be lessened if the city gets serious about protecting them, by boarding them up securely and inspecting the properties regularly. The local Council representative, Cindy Bass, says she is particularly concerned that the high school is "a gold mine for vandals."

As it is, Germantown is struggling. The decline of the shopping district, already reeling from competition from big box stores, accelerated as a result of Germantown Settlement's mismanagement and the city's neglect. While other parts of Philadelphia were gaining population during the last decade, Germantown underperformed, losing 7 percent of its residents. The number living in poverty, 28 percent, is even worse than the city's already abysmal average.

Yet there also are signs of hope for the battle-scarred neighborhood. This week, the newly reconstituted special-services district met for the first time to discuss cleaning up the commercial core to make it more attractive. The city has just committed $2.2 million to redesign Maplewood Mall, a row of shops closed to cars.

SEPTA is about to begin renovations around the Wayne Junction station. Served by multiple Regional Rail lines and buses, Germantown is one of Philadelphia's most transit-accessible neighborhoods. Once an independent borough, Germantown has the distinctive feel of a small town, somewhat like West Chester or Haddonfield.

Opening up Town Hall for the Hidden City Festival won't save the building, but it is a good reminder of the neighborhood's grand aspirations.

Inside, it looks as though the city simply decided one day to lock the doors. The dowdy municipal decor has been frozen in amber, circa 1998: Old newspapers, which bemoan the Phillies' downward spiral lie scattered on top of steel desks. A poster offers a telephone number for drug-abuse counseling. Nearby, a helium balloon celebrates "Secretary's Day." Remarkably, it is still partially inflated.

And after all the neighborhood has been through, so is Germantown.

 


Changing Skyline: Hidden City Festival

For information on events, performances, talks, ticketing, and times, visit the Hidden City Festival website, https://festival.hiddencityphila.org. Call the box office at 267-428-0575.


Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, ingasaffron@gmail.com, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.