Philly Forum 2014


This week Philadelphia welcomes Forum 2014: A Keystone Connection, the Statewide Conference on Heritage / Byways to the Past. The 2014 conference is a partnership between the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions, Preservation Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Transportation, historic preservation, history, technology – this conference looks like it’s going to be great. Tickets sold out! Will you be there? I’ll be presenting on Thursday July 17 as part of the session, Crossing into History: Compatible Bridge Design in Historic Districts. Here’s the panel summary and speakers:

Bridges are not always mere conduits for transportation, but can play important roles in shaping, or affecting, the identity of a place.  While some bridges are small and unnoticeable, others are visual representations of a particular period in time and important elements of historic settings.  What happens when a bridge in an historic setting cannot be rehabilitated?   How do you design a new bridge that is compatible with the setting but does not end up looking historicized?  Is it better to design a bridge that is modern and does not attempt to imitate history or is it possible to develop compatible new designs that reflect their setting.  This session will explore these issues and offer insight into appropriate context sensitive design.


  • Monica Harrower, Cultural Resources Professional, PennDOT District 6-0


  • Michael Cuddy, Principal, TranSystems
  • Mary McCahon, Senior Historian, TranSystems
  • Barbara Shaffer, Planning and Environmental Specialist, Federal Highway Administration
  • Dain Gattin, Chief Engineer, Philadelphia Streets Department
  • Emanuel Kelly, FAIA, Philadelphia Art Commission
  • Kaitlin O’Shea, Historic Preservation Specialist, Vermont Agency of Transportation

Join us to learn about historic bridges, replacement projects, and historic districts!

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:


Philadelphia: the Declaration of Independence, the Liberty Bell, Eastern State Penitentiary, University of Pennsylvania, the Art Museum (yes, and the Rocky steps), historic buildings, and cheesesteaks, if you’re into that sort of thing.  There is a lot to talk about from Philadelphia.  I’ll start you off with the Colonial period of the trip. The Independence National Historical Park & World Heritage Site is home to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Congress Hall, Christ Church, Old City Hall, and many other sites spread across 55 acres in Philadelphia.  Conveniently, the visitor’s center is a one stop visitor’s center, where you can find all necessary information about these sites in terms of lcoations, hours, advice, etc.   

Despite arriving on a rainy day, we still wanted to explore at least a few sites.  First we dodged the rain and saw the exhibits at the Liberty Bell and toured the exhibits inside and saw the bell. You cannot touch it, but you can take photographs.  The exhibits were interesting and there were a few short movies playing about the bell and its history, which entertains people who would rather not crowd around displays to read.  

THE Liberty Bell

THE Liberty Bell

Next we dodged the rain to wait in line (then in the rain again) for Independence Hall.  It was here that the delegates of the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence.  Needless to say, it’s a neat to place to see where all of our rights began and where these delegates truly put their lives on the line for the future generations of America.  

Assembly Room of Independence Hall

Assembly Room of Independence Hall

And outside of Independence Hall, quite a pretty sight, even in the rain:

Behind Independence Hall

Behind Independence Hall

There is much more that we did not have time to see, but I do think Philadelphia is a field trip that every child and adult should experience. Sure, we learn about the Revolutionary War in elementary school and then in high school some more, but seeing an actual site can add much more value and help to piece together lessons.  I’ll admit, I do not visit historic sites as often as I should, but those with national significance should be on everyone’s list of places to see.

More of Philadelphia to come!