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Hawthorne Hall eyes comeback, with help from Philly’s first Rose Fellow

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The three-year fellowship will focus on the historic theater’s redevelopment

Hawthorne Hall in Powelton Village hopes to make a return to Lancaster Avenue as a cultural arts center and theater.
Courtesy of Phillyhistory.org

When Lea Oxenhandler moved to Philly to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, she had no expectations. But as she began her deep dive into the Penn Public Policy Challenge, which explored issues around redevelopment of historic neighborhood assets, that soon changed.

“After being here for a year or so, I began to fall in love with Philadelphia as I discovered the perks of living in this underdog city on the verge of recognition,” Oxenhandler said.

So as her peers left Philly and moved up to New York City, Oxenhandler decided to stay put, working for for a few years at local architecture firm KiernanTimberlake. Now, she’s committed to another three years to the city, signing on as Philly’s first-ever Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow.

The Rose Fellowship is part of Enterprise, national charitable organization that supports local community development organizations working to provide low- to moderate-income housing. The fellowship places up-and-coming designers in various communities throughout the country for three years to help provide design support for host organizations. This year, after years of eyeing the city’s potential, Enterprise decided to offer a spot in Philly for the first time in the fellowship’s 17-year history.

“Philadelphia has a strong entrepreneurial, social impact ecosystem going on,” said Christopher Scott, program director for the fellowship. “And we found that there were a lot of local and external designers that wanted to be in Philadelphia.”

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Oxenhandler will now be entrenched with the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) as architect and design manager, working specifically on the organization’s efforts to bring the historic Hawthorne Hall at 3849 Lancaster Avenue and other nearby buildings back to life.

“Hawthorne Hall, along with the United Bank building and site, are two of the projects that drew me to the fellowship,” Oxenhandler wrote in an e-mail to Curbed Philly. “These buildings stand as highly visible landmarks that define major entry points to the neighborhood and will set the tone for the character of the commercial corridor as it continues to revitalize.”

Both buildings are located along Lancaster Avenue in Powelton Village. Hawthorne Hall, in particular, is a standout structure in that it is certified historic and dates back to 1895. Designed by Wright & Prentzel, it originally served as a performance hall and has long been a neighborhood landmark. Still, it sat vacant and abandoned for years, until PEC bought the property in 2012 for $385,000.

With Oxenhandler’s help and continued community engagement, the hope is that PEC’s vision to revive Hawthorne Hall could finally be a reality. She explained, “The primary goal for the redevelopment of Hawthorne Hall is for the building to once again contribute to the Lancaster Avenue commercial corridor as a thriving arts and cultural hub.”

It’s part of a larger project for PEC that aims to turn Lancaster Avenue into a vibrant, commercial corridor, with Hawthorne Hall at the helm. “One of the top 10 priorities for the community that emerged out of an ongoing neighborhood planning process for Lower Lancaster Avenue was the desire to ‘turn up the volume’ on the local art scene and creative industries.”

Oxenlander said she’ll also play a leading role in efforts to preserve current and develop new designs for PEC’s affordable housing in West Philly. Most recently, PEC opened an affordable housing development for artists in Powelton Village.

There’s rhyme and reason to the three-year-long fellowship, too, Scott said. “Three years in intentional. The development process is long, and three years is that just long enough period that allows fellows to see potential projects start to finish and at different stages over the years.”

That said, it may be a few more years until the neighborhood truly sees any signs of life at Hawthorne Hall. But Scott suspects that based on the amount of applicants who expressed interest in Philly—it had the largest amount of applicants out of all six cities—there’s bound to be a continued investment in the neighborhood and throughout the city.

“That speaks to the level of appetite in Philadelphia,” Scott said. “We’re excited to be part of system brewing there.”