In 1903, architect Lloyd Titus designed a building at 7th & Lehigh for the Northeast Manual Training School, using what the PhillyHistory Blog calls a “Collegiate Gothic Revival” style. The mostly three-story building looked like it arrived preassembled from Europe, with towers and gargoyles and carvings and two stone lions guarding the front door. Little did Titus know that in future decades, his building would be the subject of controversy on several occasions.
Over time, the school came to be known as Northeast High School, and the building saw several additions over its first few decades. By 1957, the condition of the school was beginning to deteriorate and the neighborhood was becoming considerably more diverse. Ostensibly due to both of those factors, Northeast High moved to a new building at Cottman & Algon, and the original building became known as Edison High. This resulted in the vast majority of the white students moving on to the new location, along with the school’s history and its trophies. This change, which many understood at the time to be racially motivated, created wounds for students and families that are apparently still felt today.
Starting around the time that the school changed its name, the Board of Education began discussing a new building for Edison, according to the Inquirer. By the 1970s, the building condition was worsening significantly and potential new locations for the school were proposed, only to be frustrated by Mayor Frank Rizzo. When Rizzo left office, real progress began on finding a new home for the students at Edison. Finally, in 1988, Edison moved to a new building at Front & Luzerne.
But it wasn’t until 2002 that the building was finally put out of use, as the Julia de Burgos Middle School called the increasingly dangerous building home until then. For years the building sat abandoned, though vandals and criminals moved through the poorly secured structure at will, making life miserable for people who lived nearby. It was surely the actions of an unauthorized visitor back in August of 2011 that led to the four-alarm fire that left the building in its current state.
A little more than a month prior to the fire, Orens Brothers and Mosiac Development Partners entered into an agreement to purchase the site from the school district for $600K. The plan was for the construction of a supermarket on the site, though the fire seemed to throw the plan into uncertainty.
According to a press release that came across our desk just yesterday, it seems that the Orens/Mosaic partnership will indeed take place, as financing has finally been secured for the $12.8M first phase of the project. This will include a Save-A-Lot grocery store as an anchor for the development, a Family Dollar, a Burger King, and a Kicks store. The project will, regrettably, mean the demolition of most of what remains of the Edison School, save the final addition in the rear of the property, which may someday be converted into low-income housing units for seniors.
It’s always terribly upsetting to see an old and attractive building like this come down, but we can’t imagine that a single neighbor will be upset. Considering the difficult last decade for this structure, we’re guessing that the neighborhood will be ecstatic to have an active party taking responsibility for the site, making sure it’s secure.
But did it have to be this way? Could the building, had it not burned, have been preserved without a huge amount of public dollars? Is there some mechanism to be explored to preserve large historic buildings in low-income areas?
While these questions remain unanswered for now, we suggest that the architecture buffs out there trek up to 7th & Lehigh sometime soon; it seems that what’s left of the Edison School will soon be no more.