G-town school vs. preservationists

by Tom Beck
Posted 11/29/23

If the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf gets its way, neighbors on the 100 block of West School House Lane could soon see it demolished.

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G-town school vs. preservationists


If the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf gets its way, neighbors on the 100 block of West School House Lane could soon see the demolition of a 19th-century, historically designated home. The school, which hopes to put a parking lot in its place, is citing the building’s infeasibility for reuse as grounds for its demolition. 

The home, known as Boxwood, was designated to the city’s 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, leading some residents to wonder why they bought it in the first place. 

“They knew how the neighborhood felt,” said Irwin Trauss, who lives across the street from Boxwood. “If they didn’t want to reuse the building, then they shouldn’t have bought it.”

If the building does get demolished, the school’s master plan includes laying down asphalt for a 173-space parking lot in its place. If the building is saved, according to an alternative plan laid out by the school, a smaller 137-space parking lot will be created.

The school did not immediately return the Local’s request for comment before its deadline. However, in an affidavit, the school alleges that the building isn’t suitable for reuse because it’s not ADA compliant, nor does it “contain spaces that could be easily modified to accommodate the needs of deaf students.”

The affidavit also says that the school’s campus contains “many pedestrian and vehicular conflict points,” which is especially problematic given the number of hearing-impaired students who attend the school.

On the school’s campus, “certain buildings and fields cannot be accessed without crossing a drive aisle or a parking lot, which is a constant concern for [the school] given the young students on campus,” the affidavit says. 

The school argues that building the parking lot and altering the campus’s ingress and egress points is necessary to solve this problem.

“The most efficient way to do this,” the affidavit says, “is by removing the building.”

Neighbors, including Trauss, disagree.

“They want students to not have to walk across areas where cars travel,” he said. “We don’t object to that. We think they can do that without tearing down the building.”

Historian Oscar Beisert, who wrote the building’s nomination to the register, also isn’t persuaded.

“I think the building is a beautiful building and a high quality one of its era,” he said. “To demolish it for a parking lot seems pretty egregious.”

Those against the building’s demolition, including the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and the Penn Knox Neighborhood Association, hired architect Janice Woodcock to come up with an alternative plan that meets the school’s needs without demolishing the building. 

According to Woodcock’s plan, the school can maintain the building while also making space for a 154-space parking lot to the rear of the building. 

“This report demonstrates that the [the school’s] site studies, which have been used to justify demolition, utilize debatable design parameters rather than searching for rational and realistic approaches to preserving the Boxwood site and building,” Woodcock’s report says.

The historic nature of Boxwood and many of its surrounding buildings is what makes the area desirable for residents, said Trauss, who said he’s lived in Germantown since 1981. But, Trauss said, that’s less true than it used to be.

“On this block and the unit block, the properties go back to the 1700s – some from the late 1600s,” he said. “There’s a collection of properties that includes properties from the Revolutionary War era and the Victorian era, but unfortunately a lot of those properties have been destroyed.”

The good news, said Trauss, is that the neighborhood has seen an increasing number of investors who want to buy properties to restore them.

“We’re trying to encourage that,” he said.

In 2019, Teen Challenge had plans to sell the property to a buyer who hoped to construct a 52-unit apartment building on the Boxwood parcel. But the building’s 2019 nomination to the register and 2021 designation put the kibosh on that.

“The neighborhood,” said Trauss, “opposed this due to the density and also the traffic that would result in and out of that property with that many units.”