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

13 thoughts on “A Lost Historic School: Francis M Drexel School

  1. Kaitlin says:

    Sabra, since you’re in Philadelphia, were you familiar with this building? What were your impressions? What news did I miss? Someone from the drexelschool website contacted me, which is how I knew about the building. Were the any community efforts at any point?

  2. Hazel says:

    I live down the street from the building and have seen this building all my life. I am not thrilled that the building is being demolished since something could have been done with it years ago. I do believe that the only thing to do at this point is to knock it down due to the asbestos and other issues with the building. I do blame the city for leaving it abandoned for so long in such a nice neighborhood.

    There were community efforts conducted but we are tired of seeing the decaying building and our property value being affected by it.

  3. bob says:

    i was sick of looking at the building. it had trees growing out of the top and bricks were starting to fall. from my roofdeck at 17th and moore i could see the huge holes in the roof. at the base it collected spray paint and rotten trash. wont miss the place. looking forward to see how the new houses sell.

  4. bob says:

    p.s. we dont want anymore ‘affordable housing’ in the neighborhood. there is too much of that now. we want some higher end places. anyone who talks like that is clueless. for that building to be fixed up would take a ton of money. thus the units would have to be pricy. if someone wants to see ‘afforable housing’ buy these type of buildings, fix them up with your money and then give them away. didnt thing so:-)

  5. Kaitlin says:

    Bob, I’m sorry to hear you felt that way about the building and that it was left for neglect and abandonment for so long. Rehabilitation did not necessarily have to be “affordable” or “luxury” or housing at all. Rehabilitation provides endless opportunities for creative minds. I hope that in the future your neighborhood finds good use out of the site and can recognize buildings in need of help before it is too late.

  6. bob says:

    kaitlin, over the years i have purchased and rehabed many homes as well as other old buildings. when the most recent owner(who is now in prison) of the drexel school had it for sale at roughly 400k i looked into it. i decided it made no sence. maybe you have more experience or creativity than me and you should have purchased the building and done something with it? i suspect that people with more means and deeper pockets then me also looked into this building. in some respects the building was well built and interesting. i suspect it was better then most stuff being build these days… however it did not hold a match next to any of the buildings which i have seen/studied in europe. i remain very happy to see it knocked down. the only thing that could have been worse in that spot then the boarded up school would have been a open philadelphia public school. i hear the plan for the space is 18 higher end homes. i’m fairly sure they will be pushed as ‘green’ which in my mind is often bogus and only means that you pay more green for it. everyone is free to think what they want about an old building but i feel fairly sure what is happening right now is the best option. development needs to start in the area and when it snowballs more ‘big money’ will start coming in making ‘rehabs’ possiable for all the other old run down drexel schools. if you have tears for this building i can point you to many many identical buildings all over west, north, kennisington and other areas of philly that you can scoop up and get creative with.

  7. Steve says:

    I recently heard the story of this building drove by the site yesterday. While I can certainly sympathize with the long-suffering neighbors, I have some insight as to one of the developers who was prepared to purchase and rehab it. There was an Historic Tax Credit deal in the works, which would have made the financials work, but apparently it came to the table too late in the game. Here we are more than a year later and the property is a vacant lot, now saddled with an enormous lien to the City for demolition. I’ve heard some of the sustainable builders are or were looking at it but nothing concrete. Anyone else have news on this site?

  8. Louise Lindinger says:

    Too bad this building was torn down—and I say that from a purely emotional standpoint. I attended this school from 1947 to 1951 when my family moved from the neighborhood. All I have left are my memories.

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