Looks Like West Philly High Will Get Redeveloped Soon

Anyone who is as obsessed with development news as we are was thrilled when we heard recently that the old West Philadelphia High School is finally being redeveloped after roughly five years of vacancy. The school moved into a new facility at 49th & Chestnut in September 2011. The original building is a hulking structure which occupies a whole city block at 47th and Walnut. It was finished in 1912 and was notable back then because it was the only secondary school in Philadelphia west of the Schuylkill.

West Philly High

Since its closing, we've been watching, and the neighborhood has been meeting with the developer, Heights Advisors, to come up with a final plan which was suitable to all parties (though not all are happy with what is set to happen here). At one point, the developers thought they may be able to rent out half of the building to a charter school. But that plan seems to have fallen through as they are now seeking to redevelop the entire building as apartments, 298 of them to be exact. It will also include zero parking spots since the developer figures most residents will be biking, walking, or taking advantage of the Market-Frankford Line, at the 46th Street Station. That said, it looks like from both the permit, and the current demolition happening at the site, that the developer is only taking on half of the building at a time. This isn't surprising the building contains over 442K sqft of space and is a massive undertaking for this section of the city. We walked out during the snow storm and snapped some pictures of some of the current activity at the property.

The view from 47th and Walnut

Dumpsters and indoor demolition

View from 48th and Walnut, fences are only up on the eastern portion of the structure

As we rounded the corner to get some other shots of the building, we noticed a large addition, the Floyd Logan Gymnasium, on the southern portion of the property. We're assuming this was a mid-century add-on. While the rest of the building seems like a fairly straightforward residential conversion from former classrooms, we wondered how the developer would be handling this huge side structure.

Floyd Logan Gym

After doing a little permitting research, we found the permit for the property includes the details that the former gym is planned to be kept as a gym, and a fitness center will also be included in the structure. What we don't know is whether the gym will be open to the general public. Since the building used to be a public building (a public school, no less), we think it would be great if this amenity was open to local non-profits or others who may want to use it for community development purposes.

Besides that, we're really curious if the developers have any eventual plans for the huge sidewalks and open spaces surrounding the building. Perhaps some green space or community gardens would be in order. But until we see any plans, we'll continue to wonder what that would look like. The bottom line is that we're really excited to see this building being brought back to life. In combination with the development happening at 46th & Sansom and the Public Safety Services Campus, this area of West Philadelphia is experiencing a wave of development, the likes of which it hasn't seen in a hundred years.

  • WeBuiltThisCity

    It represents a period of history where people hated everything good about cities and ignored hundreds of years of study of human behavior. Other than that…

    But I can appreciate wanting to keep the diversity, and my only problem with it is how it interacts with the street. Make the retail level more engaging, and build up a few more stories where feasible to make it more appropriate density-wise considering its proximity to transit (another thing ignored by the anti-city era when this was built).

    • ambiguator

      This building is rather hideous. Compound this with World Communications, and this block is completely closed to the street. This block needs some retail, or some open space that’s not fenced in. Finally, when city workers stop using the sidewalk in front of this building as their own personal parking lot, the block will be better for it. Expect some changes at this intersection once SouthStar goes up, and their residents realize they have to walk 3 blocks to get a decent dinner.

      • WeBuiltThisCity

        I agree. I’m just sick of fighting this fight. People want to save buildings from every era, regardless of whether or not they are attractive or care about urban environment. I just want a good urban walkable feel. If they can rehab the building to keep whatever charm people see in it, fine. But give me density and active street life, that is all I really care about.

  • ajs1512

    Not every building can nor should be preserved. Some preservationists contend that buildings like these will one day become “in vogue” and will come to be appreciated by more people over time; as was the case of neoclassicism during the middle of the last century. However, they tend to forget that neoclassicism never truly went out of style. Yes, many buildings were demolished during the 50s and 60s; although, this was largely due to the fact that there were no true historic commissions, districts, preservationist groups etc as we have today.
    There was public outcry when Penn Station was demolished and similar sentiment was expressed when Grand Central was threatened with the same fate. While buildings like Penn and Grand Central were perceived as relics of the golden age of the city, the Health Center represents a time of the beginnings of urban decay and the complete rejection of the classical urban landscape. Apart from a few academics, I’m not so certain that the greater public will come to adore buildings like these as they have with prewar structures.

    • Ken Nemeth

      I could not agree more. I laugh when people compare most International Style buildings of the 1950’s and 1960’s to buildings like New York’s Penn Station. Just because a building is of it’s time and executed well to the style of its time (which this indeed does – it’s a nice, eclectic, International Style building), it does not mean we should save it.

  • phl

    I don’t think the Doubletree is a monstrosity…it’s serrated facade is interesting and cool and it’s street presence isn’t bad, despite the parking garage. Also, I don’t think it should be called the McCarthy Era, he doesn’t deserve that kind of importance, and he was dead and forgotten by 1959. It should be called the Eisenhower Era.

  • Have always loved this building and hope it would be saved. I agree that the street level needs better connection – which could be easily achieved with changes to the first floor facing the street.

  • Steph

    No, it should not be preserved. It should be built out and the parking lot removed.

  • Brian Marsh

    This building is awesome. A gem of mid century design. I love the glazed red brick surrounding the stairs that are visible from the sidewalk when you walk by the main entrance (I also love the polychromatic glazing on the exterior brick). Glass brick, radius corners, exposed columns, etc.

    This building appears versatile (read: housing units)… it would be a shame to demolish it IMO. If anything it would be neat to see a build up on top of the existing structure… PS – Brownstoner did a neat feature on this building a few years back

    • Ken Nemeth

      It’s a beautiful building, but do you really feel it works on that part of Broad Street in 2013?

      • Brian Marsh

        Yes. It at least deserves the test of the “free market” to see if somebody can come up with a feasible plan to utilize it. I’m not advocating this as a preservationist… but because I see potential in it to work with Broad St in 2013 and beyond.

    • laurenalice

      I agree. I’ve always loved this building!

  • GroJlart Rhaandarite

    I used to hate this place a lot more than I do now, I’ve come to appreciate a bit more over the years. The whole thing would look a lot better if it was placed at the corner and not behind a surface lot on Lombard. They could give this thing the Western Union Building treatment and it would be just fine.

    Nothing’s going to improve until WorldCom gets kicked off the block. That building they have would be beautiful if the facade was restored and the windows brought back to their original size– then kick-ass loft apartments could be installed inside.

  • Frank Rizzo

    Well hopefully the City will sell it at below market value by sticking with a non-MLS or similarly poorly advertised listing. Of course the highest price is always obtained by the City through its opaque bidding process where there is no guarantee the highest bidder will be awarded the opportunity to buy it (as it is a political process), despite spending considerably money on appraisals and other paperwork required by the city in order to bid. And if we’re really lucky, the poorly advertised, below-market value sale will be made to a developer who is also a major political donor to our Mayor.

    • PlaidArmour

      List the names of these so-called developers who are also a major political donor to the mayor that fall under those lines?

      • citizen

        He can’t and won’t …….fortunatley because of this mayor…individual and PAC donations are limited to $2,500 and $10,000 Respectively so that means their are NO Major donors to candidates for Mayor in the City of Philadelphia…….and no one is buying influence with $2500 or $10,000

        • Frank Rizzo

          Hah, in a one party system, does it really matter where you donate exactly? Higher is better generally. These guys spread plenty of money around, and there is a high correlation between those who make political donations and those who are successful bidders on City owned property, particularly high profile properties.

          • citizen

            WRONG………..the large pieces of property that you are referring to that have sold in the last 5 years have all been available through a public bidding process (RFP)….the mayor nor city council takes no vote ….the highest bidder with actually cash or financing in place…for the appopriate (ie meets all requirements of the RFP)… use has been chosen in every case……and none of the winning bidders have been donors of more than $2,500 to the mayor……that is an absolute fact…..

  • Peter

    Its a sub-par modern building at best. take it down.

  • Aww man! This is my favorite building in Philadelphia. I was just thinking the other day I should write a Philly Love Note to this building! (When you walk past it, look up at the corner offices on the SE side of the building–they stuck an ET up there.)

  • CityDude

    Horrible, horrible building, please demolish it !

  • Astralmilkman

    This building could easily be saved , add stories but have them set back from the street. Keep the same cool exterior , it’s got beautiful lines . Clean up the traffic around it.

    • Frank Rizzo

      That’d be great if they went up real high right in front of the Symphony House! ha ha, how you like variances now dranoff?

  • Ken Nemeth

    While I love this building’s architecture as an object in space, as a building in its urban context it is wholly inappopriate. At that portion of Broad Street we should be seeing buildings of a scale, size and height that is befitting the other, larger buildings in the area. Tear it down and don’t look back.

  • Clank

    I think it’s a gem of a modern building. Say what you will about the simplicity of this era of architecture and how generally anti-urban it was (I agree with that), but if all examples of it are torn down there will be nothing left to represent it. Now’s the time to better incorporate these buildings into the urban fabric when we can, and I think we can do it with this building. I agree with the others who say additional stories could be built above…kind of like the AAA building at 21st and Market. And just because there’s a vacant lot next to the buiding doesn’t mean it should be torn down. Develop the vacant lot as well!

  • singerep

    It’s not a question of preservation, I doubt there is any real historical significance here. That is not to say it should be demolished at first opportunity. There are probably many ways to renovate / add-on to this building. I don’t understand why Americans first reaction to urban redevelopment is to wipe the slate clean and build a new building that everyone will want torn down in another 30 years. Why do we not first analyze what already exists and explore the potential for how it could be re-imagined. This would save not only the historical record of an era, but also countless resources wasted in the continual process of tearing down and starting over. If there is no feasible way to reuse an existing building then tear it down, I have no interest in keeping something just for the sake of history, but in many cases we would be better served to work with what we already have.