North Philadelphia's Edison High School has loomed large on Lehigh Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets for over a century. In a mere matter of days, its story will come to a close, its history permanently erased from the neighborhood. Gutted by a harrowing four-alarm fire in the summer of 2011, many can make the case that the building is just too old and too damaged to be preserved. No matter the argument, the historic school is coming down and will sadly be replaced by a Burger King, Family Dollar, and Save-a-Lot.
The loss of Edison High is a significant blow not only for a community that sees the building as a neighborhood icon, but also for preservationists and architecture fanatics alike, as its castle-like walls adorned with turrets and gargoyles are truly one of a kind in a city where historic preservation just isn't taken as seriously as it should be.
Our friends over at Streets Dept recently ran a great photo-heavy Q&A piece with an urban exploration photographer known in the community as RuinPorn. Curbed got the chance to speak with her a bit further about her thoughts on abandoned buildings and the overall lackluster preservation efforts here in Philadelphia.
Curbed: What are the most heartbreaking abandoned structures that you've seen in Philadelphia?
RuinPorn: To be totally honest, the most heartbreaking abandoned buildings are the residential houses. There are so many areas of Philadelphia with blocks that are littered with abandoned houses. If you take a drive down Ridge Ave from Fairmount to Dauphin Street you will pass by dozens of abandoned homes. This is where people live, walk their kids to school and wait for the bus to go to work.
You can trace abandoned industrial and commercial buildings to a cause -- moving manufacturing overseas, etc. But allowing these neighborhoods to remain neglected with rotting buildings just sends the message to its residents that this city doesn't care about where you live.
Curbed: Are the hazards of derelict buildings (falling bricks, structural concerns, etc.) enough of an issue to justify demolition, or should preservation always be the end goal?
RuinPorn: If I had magical powers I would want every abandoned building in this town to be mindfully renovated for adaptive reuse. I know, though, the money to do that just does not exist. And many developers want to make money, they don't necessarily care about preservation. Plus, Philadelphia is so bad at enforcing property tax payment on vacant commercial buildings, I imagine some developers have the belief that Philly is a place where you can scoop up properties and sit on them forever without paying taxes.
Curbed: What is the deciding factor between a building worth saving and a building worthy of demolition?
RuinPorn: I can't think of a litmus test, but I have an example of two buildings:
• Van Straaten and Havey in Wayne Junction. This building was in a historic district, but it was in danger of imminent collapse and a severe fire hazard. I had been in the building a few times, and it was the only time I have been worried about making it out in one piece. Entire floors had collapsed leaving wood and metal dangling. This building was full of wood, if it caught fire it would easily spread to the residential homes behind it. I understand this one had to come down. It's gone now, they demoed it pretty recently.
• Ortliebs Brewery. These buildings are owned by Bart Blatstein. He said last year that he pulled a demo permit for the buildings because people's tastes are for new construction. That is 100% bullshit. If he did a nice renovation of the buildings into mixed-use units people would love it. The neighborhood would prefer it to new construction shit boxes. He could be a hero, but instead he just cares about the bottom line.
Curbed: Which specific case of demolition has been Philadelphia's greatest tragedy?
RuinPorn: There are many tragic losses of buildings in Philadelphia, but I am currently obsessed with the tragedy that is the demolition of Edison High School. They are taking down this historic building to make way for a Burger King, Family Dollar and Save-a-Lot.
The building is amazing, it is like a castle complete with gargoyles! How many gargoyles do we have in Fairhill? I truly believe this building would have been preserved if it was in a different location. People should go pay their respects now; it is being torn down as I type.
I really hope the Beury Building gets saved one day and doesn't go the route of Edison. I call the Beury the Divine Lorraine's neglected cousin. I believe this also has to do with location; it is an amazing art deco building that deserves a second life. ————
With the city of Philadelphia playing such a crucial role in our nation's development, this conversation begs the question of why more emphasis isn't placed on the restoration of some of our finest decaying buildings. The Church of the Assumption, St. Bonaventure, Edison High School, and St. Boniface are just a few of the historic structures that have either met the wrecking ball, or will soon face it. We know the questions surrounding this issue -- now they just need to be answered.
For a closer look at RuinPorn's work, check out her Instagram feed and enjoy the photo gallery she's submitted to Curbed.
· Inside the Late Edison High School, Philadelphia's Forgotten Castle [StreetsDept]
· Fire at Old Edison High Under Investigation [6ABC]