The former Northeast Manual Training High School looks as if it had been plucked from the Princeton campus and dropped into the middle of North Philadelphia. Constructed in 1903 at the intersection of North 8th Street and West Lehigh Avenue, the “Collegiate Gothic” building has walls of granite, traceried windows, and gargoyles sprouting from the central tower. The auditorium boasted a magnificent pipe organ. This was not a school for the rich and privileged, but for the sons of working class Philadelphians. The School Board believed that traditional beauty could be a form of uplift for the students, most of whom lived in tightly-packed, tree-less neighborhoods, befouled by smoke from the surrounding factories. Architect Lloyd Titus followed his client’s wishes, and created a dignified structure that loomed dreamily above the neighborhood’s squat rowhouses and warehouses.
It is an edifice built to last. Over a century after its completion, there is not a crack in the foundations and walls are still plumb and level.
Yet on August 3, 2011, the school caught fire and the upper floors were completely burned out. Nothing short of a total gut-renovation could make it fit for reuse. The school, most recently known as the Julia DeBurgos Middle Magnet School, had been closed two years before the conflagration. Because it was not properly sealed, the old school became a magnet for squatters, drug-addicts, and vandals, and quickly fell into ruin. The four-alarm fire, possibly the result of arson, was the coup de grace.
Last Tuesday, I stood with demolition superintendent Devon Jackson in the groin-vaulted Gothic vestibule of the school’s auditorium, just as demolition started. It was a dreary, gray day. Rain spat through the vacant windows, and bright construction lights shone through the swirling dust. Piles of rubble filled the courtyard. A few weeds still clung tenaciously to life, poking through the debris.
“The toughest part of the demolition is removing all the wood from the structure,” Devon explained. It was not just in the floor planks and joists, but also buried behind plaster walls. Much of the wood that escaped the fire was either water-damaged or had succumbed to rot.
I asked Devon if it was OK for me to step into the auditorium. It was a cavernous space, two stories high. The stage, surrounded by crumbling plaster moulding, still remained. A tattered blue curtain shung from the proscenium. The seats had already been removed, the flooring material ripped up. The pipe organ once stood behind the stage.
Eric Smith, Jackson’s supervisor at A.T. Russell Construction (the company in charge of demolishing the school), was alerted to the long-sealed organ shortly after demolition started, but by the time he arrived to photograph it, his workers had dismantled the instrument. While wandering through the school, Smith saw pitiful reminders of the squatters who used the squalid structure as their home. One illegal tenant had set up a suite of sorts, using a room for discarding his soiled clothes, one as a closet, and another as his bedroom. Since the building had no working plumbing, he poked a hole in a chair and used it as a toilet. Bottles he used for urination lay scattered around the space.
Taking down such a massive structure is no easy task, yet Smith predicts that his team of about 20 men will demolish it in a mere three months. The first task is to gut the interior and salvage anything of value. Unusable wood components will be shredded into mulch, and sheetrock pulverized into gypsum fertilizer. The 10-inch veneer of exterior granite, as well as the gargoyles, cornices, and window tracery, will be sold to architectural salvage dealers, who have found a brisk market for such elegant pieces of history. Men wielding sledgehammers and a swinging wrecking ball will then knock down the brick-and-masonry structural walls.
Smith knows he has a job to do and that economically the building is probably beyond saving. Yet he still regrets its destruction. “It’s a shame to see a building like that torn down,” he said. “You take a school hat’s been around for 110 years and then replace it with a Save-A-Lot, Burger King or a sneaker store. Change is necessary, but it would be nice if there was a better way to preserve structures like that. Even if you tried to save a portion of the building and preserve the history of the site.”