Of all the educational white elephants that the Philadelphia School District unloaded at its spring fire sale, few can match the Edward Bok vocational school for scale and eccentricity. Occupying a full city block at Ninth and Mifflin, the eight-story art deco landmark lords over its humble rowhouse dominion like a craggy hilltop fortress. The auditorium alone can seat a thousand, and the corridors are as wide as some city streets.
Who in their right mind would attempt to reuse a colossus like Bok?
Meet Lindsey Scannapieco, a 28-year-old, first-time developer who studied real estate finance at the London School of Economics. Last year at this time, Scannapieco was in London, running Scout Ltd., a company that specializes in large public-art installations. Their signature project was the construction of "Fridge Mountain," a stack of discarded white refrigerators that served as a temporary movie house for the London Olympics. Bringing Bok back to life will be the equivalent of Fridge Mountain, times 10.
Yet, perhaps because Scannapieco, a Philadelphia native, doesn't do strictly commercial development, she's bringing a fresh eye and offbeat sensibility to the problem of school reuse. So many Philadelphia schools have been shuttered since 2012 - roughly 40 - that there is a surplus of large, hard-to-retrofit buildings. Typically, developers try to convert them into apartments, or clean them up for charters, but many are still empty.
Scannapieco's concept for Bok plays off its roots as a vocational school, where the city's working class were trained for skilled jobs such as hairdressers, cooks and carpenters. She can't bring back that institution - or the jobs - but she hopes to turn the historically designated school designed by Irwin Catharine into a hive of small workshops for creative entrepreneurs, what's known these days as a "makers space."
If she and her partners at Scout are successful, there will be tech start-ups in Bok's old science labs, an artisanal coffee roaster in the culinary department's kitchen, maybe a furniture maker in Bok's fully equipped wood shop.
She also wants to liven up the exterior of the formidable civic building. She is considering putting a farmers' market on the grassy apron and a food co-op in the boys' gym. She would love to land a restaurant and call it "Le Bok Fin," just like the one that students used to run. There will probably be some apartments, too, although they are not the main focus.
"We'll keep the name Bok. It's easy to say and spell," explains Scannapieco. Bok was the longtime editor of the Philadelphia-based Ladies' Home Journal and is credited with coining the term "living room." That bit of history inspired her to think of the makers space as a community living room.
It all sounds pie-in-the-sky, but development experts who are following her progress believe Scannapieco just might be able to pull it off. "If anyone can do it, she can," says Charlie Abdo, part of a group that has transformed Frankford's sprawling Globe Dye Works into a similar makers hub. While Bok lacks Globe's easy highway access, it is well-positioned a few blocks south of the bustling East Passyunk neighborhood, and is halfway between Center City and the Navy Yard's growing business center.
City officials and local residents are certainly rooting for her. During the charged debate that preceded this year's school closings, the emphasis was almost entirely on how much cash the sale would generate for the district. Little thought or planning was given to what would become of the difficult old buildings, which often are the dominant local landmark.
The irony, argues Emily Dowdall, who has studied school closings for the Pew Charitable Trusts, is that "what happens to buildings afterward has a bigger impact on the neighborhood than the actual closing."
That helps explain why there is still much trepidation about the fate of Germantown, William Penn and University City High Schools - all gargantuan structures that were sold this year. Like Scannapieco, the buyers of the first two are still exploring how to fill their enormous halls, while University City is slated for demolition.
Scannapieco's ideas for Bok gained credibility when she hired Garth Rockcastle of the Minneapolis-based MSR Architects. The firm is known for taking on difficult industrial buildings and rendering them into creative wonderlands.
MSR helped Urban Outfitters carve a new headquarters from a clutch of metal shops at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. And they were the ones who transformed the plain-vanilla interior of a Science Center building into a thrilling maze of studios for Drexel University.
"I'm as jazzed about Bok as anything we've worked on," says Rockcastle, who brought a team to Philadelphia last week to conduct the architectural version of an archaeological dig at the 1936 building. Some ideas that emerged: Use Bok's 10 dramatic terraces for restaurants or arrays of solar panels. Install a communal fleet of electric cars in the basement. Because of her finance background, Scannapieco is confident that she can secure $40 million to $50 million for renovations.
Her other ace is her connection to the neighborhood. Her grandparents grew up there, and married in St. Rita's Church on Broad Street. Her father, Tom Scannapieco, went on to become a successful developer of luxury high-rises, including 1706 Rittenhouse. The area around Bok - now a diverse mix of Mexican, Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants, as well as longtime Italian families - has avoided the blight and abandonment of many working class neighborhoods.
Besides her vision for Bok, Scannapieco stands out for her willingness to involve the neighborhood in the process. Even before the district picked her as the winning bidder, she met with residents to explain her concept. She provided an update last week and received an enthusiastic response - along with the usual pleas for more parking.
As compelling as her vision is, results are not likely to come quickly. After seven years, Abdo's makers space at the Globe Dye Works is still only half-occupied, although he says his group is breaking even. Meanwhile, a developer walked away a few weeks ago from the Bok neighborhood's other behemoth, Mount Sinai Hospital, after giving up on plans to covert it to apartments.
As grueling as the school district's schools sell-off was, it's clear now that it was only the beginning of a long recovery.