by Sue Ann Rybak
The Waldorf School of Philadelphia, a private nursery through 8th grade elementary school at 7500 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, plans to relocate to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 6008 Wayne Ave. in Germantown in September of 2014.
It will occupy a 140-year-old historic church was designed and built by Frank Furness and George Hewitt between 1873 and 1883 for Henry Houston. The church has been on the Register of Historic Places since 1985.
“When we first did the walk-through on this building it was magical,” said Kerry Hoffman, interim school chair at Waldorf. “For years, we have been talking about finding our own permanent home. We started looking at St. Peter’s two years ago, but after discussing it among ourselves we realized we wouldn’t be able to do it on our own.”
In May 2011, the school approached developer Ken Weinstein to discuss the possibility of securing the property and renovating it to fit the needs of the school. Weinstein acquired the site in June for $435,000 and said the project, which includes renovations, will cost more than $5 million.
The church, which has been unoccupied since 2005, sits on one and one-half acres and has four vacant, deteriorated, historically significant buildings: a Gothic stone church, chapel, rectory and parish house.
“It’s our goal to make an impact in our community, one property at a time,” said Weinstein, whose organization Philly Office Retail will lease the property to the school.
Hoffman said the historic site is in alignment with the educational and academic philosophy of Waldorf. She added that its large wooded property, which leads into the Fairmount Park, and urban location make it a perfect fit for their school.
“I think our focus on bringing children to a reverence of beauty really speaks to why we think these buildings hold so much beauty within themselves,” said Hoffman, formerly of Germantown.
“It’s important for us to preserve buildings from the past because once they are gone they are not coming back,” said Weinstein, whose organization has won Preservation Alliance Awards for community preservation of four properties: Cresheim Cottage Cafe, Trolley Car Diner, Allens Lane Train Station – all in Mt. Airy – and the Trolley Car Cafe (Bathey House) in East Falls.
“I love the idea of adaptive reuse of vacant deteriorated buildings,” Weinstein said. “Many churches have gone out of business, so finding a new use and a new tenant is vital to saving historic properties. I love the challenge.”
He added that historic buildings, such as St. Peter’s Church, “are especially important to restore because they were designed by the best and built by those who spared no expense.”
Weinstein said in this phase of the project, the buildings are currently undergoing extensive asbestos removal and selective demolition. After that phase is complete, workers will begin to make structural repairs and begin to repair the roofs on the church and the chapel.
He noted that the asbestos, which is in all four buildings, was much more prevalent than originally believed. Weinstein said if the buildings had remained neglected, in a couple of years they would have collapsed.
Hoffman, the interim school chair, said the community has embraced Waldorf, adding that the school hopes to establish strong connections with its new community.
“We are very excited about moving to our new permanent home and hope to build partnerships with other schools and organizations in the community.”
Andy Trackman, president of Germantown United CDC, said the organization is very supportive of the adaptive reuse of old, historic buildings.
“Maintaining the physical fabric of the community of Germantown is very important to its economic revitalization,” Trackman said. “What we have today is a unique asset that can’t be found elsewhere. This project does two great things; It preserves a beautiful stone Frank Furness-designed building, and provides additional educational choices for our neighborhood.
“Germantown is one of the most historic neighborhoods in the United States, not just Philadelphia. So, as current residents, we have a duty to preserve this history for future generations. Our neighborhood’s history and the sense of place its built environment provides are very important to our residents. Reusing historic buildings for modern purposes helps do this. Adaptive reuse also provides an economic and environmental benefit. Reusing an existing building can be as cost-effective as new construction – less new raw material is being used, and less is going into a landfill. Plus, they just don’t build ‘em like they used to, and that’s important for the younger generations to see.”