Boxwood to be demolished

by Tom Beck
Posted 12/13/23

The Philadelphia Historical Commission has voted unanimously in favor of a motion to allow a parking lot in place of the building.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Boxwood to be demolished


The Philadelphia Historical Commission has voted unanimously in favor of a motion that would allow Germantown’s Pennsylvania School for the Deaf to demolish Boxwood, a 19th-century historically designated home, to build a parking lot on the building’s location at 156 W. School House Lane. The commission approved the motion despite universal opposition from neighbors and the preservation community. 

Commission members cited the infeasibility of renovating the building as an important reason for their vote.

“It was clear to us that the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf cannot really reuse that building,” said Dan McCoubrey, who sits on the commission’s board. “On the financial side… even if they put a lot of money into [rehabbing] it, they would get marginally useful space.”

The school plans to lay down asphalt for a 173-space parking lot in Boxwood’s place. Construction of the parking lot would be part of the school’s effort to rearrange traffic on its campus to make for fewer conflict points between vehicles and pedestrians – something the school considers especially important due to the high number of hearing-impaired students onsite.

“We can certainly all agree,” McCoubrey added, “that getting the traffic out of the core of the campus is a great benefit” to the school.

The board’s chair, Bob Thomas, said he felt that Boxwood’s demolition was “unfortunate” but “necessary.” The demolition, he said, “was in the interest of preserving and enhancing the school, its programs and its service to the public.”

Much of his personal opinion, he said, was swayed in the school’s favor after learning about the need for “deaf space,” which is extra space that allows deaf people to more efficiently navigate their environments.

“It's almost like a totally different building code and set of standards,” he said.

The building was designated to the historic register in 2019, in part for being the work of famed Philadelphia-area architect Mantle Fielding. At that time, it was owned by Pennsylvania Adult and Teen Challenge, an addiction treatment center. Pennsylvania School for the Deaf bought the building as it was pending designation – a point of frustration for many residents who thought the school knew what it was getting into when it made the purchase.

Every member of the public who spoke during the public comment portion of the hearing, which lasted about an hour and 15 minutes, voiced their opposition to the home’s demolition. That included Oscar Beisert, a historian and Germantown resident, who was concerned about the precedent Boxwood's demolition could set. 

“We have a lot of nonprofits in the neighborhood,” he said, “If all of them were to make this case…they could demolish many things in the public interest.”

Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, echoed Beisert’s sentiment.

“If you allow the demolition,” he said, “you send a message that any nonprofit property owner can acquire a historical building, declare that they cannot use it and tear it down.”

Another commenter, Jay Farrell, urged the commission to consider whether Boxwood’s demolition is really a life or death situation for the school.

“I have no doubt that [Pennsylvania] School for Deaf will survive and thrive without demolishing Boxwood and that they will manage to make improvements in their campus without the demolition,” he said. “The school is not in a fight for survival, even if they like to pretend they are.”