A Lost Historic School: Francis M Drexel School

Exterior of the Drexel School. Click for source.

Take a look at the picture above. What comes to mind? Most observers would be able to say that this building was beautiful in its heyday. It has an impressive institutional feel about it. So, what will happen to it? Doesn’t it look like the perfect subject for adaptive reuse? Why does it look like that? Clearly it is not respected by its neighbors.

What was it? This building, the Francis M Drexel School was built in 1888, designed by architect Joseph Anshutz and financed by Anthony Drexel. Francis M. Drexel was an artist, a banker, a family man, and a philanthropist who wanted to provide education to all regardless of race, gender, or social class. His son Anthony Drexel realized his vision with the construction of approximately 75 schools across Philadelphia, all similar to the one above. It served the Philadelphia city schools until the 1970s, after which is was declared a surplus property. Very few survive intact or survive at all today. The Francis M Drexel School is the oldest extant Drexel School and it does not have a promising fate either.* In December 2009 it demolition was ordered. It will be replaced with brand new luxury town homes. Unfortunately, it is too late to do anything, and demolition will begin next week.

The Francis M Drexel School in Philadelphia, PA.

This building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visit the exterior and interior photo sections of the Drexel School website to feel the beauty of such a school and the impact of its current condition. It’s heartbreaking, even for someone who has never heard of the building. Trust me, but see for yourself, too. You can also find the blueprints of the school in the blueprints section of the sidebar.

And it is the case of another historic school lost. And perhaps a reminder that it is never too early to advocate for saving a structure — empty buildings never fare well. Was there anything that could have been done? How can we learn from this lesson? Readers, what can we do? This is a situation we find across the country, all of the time. What are your thoughts? A use could easily have been found – it is in the center of a neighborhood, like most historic schools. There is not a resident of that neighborhood who has seen the cityscape without the Francis M Drexel School. Sadly, since it has been surplus since the 1970s, most people have not seen it as an active part of the community. Perhaps they have had trouble looking beyond the neglected building. And with all that time of neglect, it had become unsafe and deemed ineligible for rehabilitation.

What sort of mitigation would be appropriate? Suggestions? Do you have advice or know people in Philadelphia to help, those who care about the school’s memory? Leave a note here or email drexelschool [at] verizon [dot] net. Your help is much appreciated.

*Historical information provided by the Drexel School website: http://www.thedrexelschool.com