Update on Old First's Schoolhouse

Update on Old First's Schoolhouse

During Holy Week, the owner of a neighborhood business stopped by to tell us that there was a request before the Philadelphia Historical Commission to demolish “the schoolhouse building” that Old First constructed in 1796 and is currently part of a 3-building complex directly along the southern property line of our current property.

The current schoolhouse building is actually the second one Old First built on that property, the original one dating back to 1753. Old First used its schoolhouse for educational and other parish purposes until about the 1880’s when 1) public schooling supplanted the earlier generations’ “free” parochial schools, and 2) Old First relocated to a newly constructed building at 10th / Wallace. (To learn more about the schoolhouse, you can read this historical paper Bob S. wrote in the 90s.)

If you look directly behind our sanctuary building, you can see the brick wall of the schoolhouse, and though the windows have all been removed and bricked up, you can clearly see their outlines. On the other side, the south side of the structure, visible from the parking lot at Cherry and Orianna, the first floor is “buried behind” a garage building built in the early 1900’s, but the upper floors are visible. The original windows have been replaced by louvered windows, the original third floor gabled roof was torn off and another floor had been added, and the facade has been covered in parge.

The original plans brought before the historical commission at its March meeting requested permission to demolish the schoolhouse building and the adjoining, later-constructed garage building that are all now connected and a part of the building at 141-3 Fourth Street. They were to be replaced by the a six-story condo. building (actually taller than the sanctuary building) on the same footprint, with an additional, narrow, 6-story addition that would fill the driveway that runs right along Orianna Street all the way down to Cherry Street.

The historical commission did not accept the developer’s suggestion that the schoolhouse portion of the property was not structurally sound, and hence needing to be demolished. And the historical commission expressed concern that its historical nature warranted further consideration. The commission asked the architect to return to its April meeting with a report on the building’s condition from a structural engineer.

With a bit of scrambling, Old First sent a letter to the building owner, with copies to the architect, the Philadelphia Historical Commission, Councilman Squilla and Mayor Kenney expressing our desire to be apprised and part of the conversation about the future of the structure. (Old First has not owned or used that property since 1880.) We wrote:

“With our historic association and interest in the structure, we would like to be part of the conversation. As peripatetic an institution as Old First, we understand that cities change and buildings are replaced. That said, we do have a strong preservationist interest in one of the few remaining larger 18th century buildings in the Old City neighborhood. It is a part of our church’s history and part of the history of Philadelphia.

And, even if permission to demolish were to be granted, we have an obvious concern about design issues for a new building to be constructed, as it is on our property line and a few feet from our historic sanctuary building.

Old First is currently in the middle of its own capital campaign, and after completing a property assessment with KSK Architects, Planners, Historians, we are investigating various possibilities with our property. The disposition of an adjoining property could affect our plans.”

That meeting was held last Friday, April 8. Michael attended and spoke, along with other folks from the neighborhood, mostly neighbors who live on Cherry or Orianna Street. At that meeting the architect and developer were back with a new plan.

They still wanted to tear down the garage buildings that wrap the east and south sides of the schoolhouse. Though everyone agrees that essentially what is left of the schoolhouse is just a building shell without any surviving interior architectural detail (and a 4th floor that was added on after the demolition of the original gabled roof), the developer and architect meant their second plan to recognize its historical import: there are still there the outside walls of one of the few remaining 18th century buildings in the neighborhood. That alone warrants some appreciation of the historical value of the schoolhouse building.

The second proposal brought to this April meeting was to leave the north, east and west walls of the original schoolhouse intact, but to tear off the southern wall in order to create a much wider residence, and remove the roof to add one more story. On the east end of this “renovation,” they proposed an additional, new, 6-story new building as well as the narrow 6-story building that was part of the first proposal for the driveway along Orianna Street.

The historical commission turned down their proposal, primarily for two reasons:

1) the removing 2 of 5 planes of an existing structure has traditionally constituted a demolition in the eyes of the historical commission. As such, the developer and architect would have to go through the lengthier and more complicated process to gain permission for a demolition. And,

2) there was significant concern that “the massing” of buildings of this size midblock was inapproporiate for Old City. Members of the historical commission pointed out that traditionally, in a neighborhood like ours, larger buildings end up on major thoroughfares, like 4th or Race. But the side streets like Cherry or Orianna Streets have smaller and much lower buildings.

The developer and architect were invited to work closely with the staff of the historical commission in order to come up with a proposal the might be acceptable.