A computer rendering of what the planned Ralph Roberts Boys and Girls Club will look like if plans to raise the original historic structure move forward.

by Julia DeGregorio

Comcast Corporation’s plans to demolish the Germantown Boys Club building at 23 W Penn St. and replace it with a new, more technologically sound one, costing around $20 million, have hit a snag.

While the significant investment might appear to be good news for the neighborhood, there has been considerable pushback against this project in the Germantown community because of the historical nature of the 120-year-old building that Comcast would have to demolish to make way for the building.

“Germantown is one of the most distinctive parts of the city architecturally, and to continue to remove historic buildings from its landscape has a bastardizing effect on the built environment,” said Oscar Beisert, architectural historian and preservation activist who penned the nomination of the property to be added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

The current building, designed by well-known Philadelphia architect Mantle Fielding Jr., has a historical value that residents feel is synonymous with Germantown. As such, it has long been considered an integral piece of the social history of the area.

The new building would be named for Comcast founder Ralph Roberts, who grew up in Germantown. His son and current Comcast president Brian Roberts lives in Chestnut Hill.

The Germantown Boys Club, formed in 1887, provided young boys (and later girls as well) with a reprieve from the streets and a place to learn practical skills as the population of Germantown grew rapidly. The current building was built in 1898 and completed with an addition in 1909.

That a historic building in Germantown is under threat of demolition is not unique in Philadelphia. Only around 3 to 4 percent of Philadelphia’s buildings are protected by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, according to Beisert. Comparatively, 28 percent of Manhattan and 15 percent of Washington, D.C., buildings are protected by their respective historical commissions.

Germantown Avenue, one of the two National Historic Landmark Districts in Philadelphia, has few buildings protected by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, despite the fact that it dates back to the 17th century.

Beisert took on the Germantown Boys Club project after Julie Baranauskas, former chair of the Penn-Knox Neighborhood Association, personally asked him. Baranauskas died last year.

Beisert hopes for a compromise between community members and the Boys and Girls Club of Philadelphia.

“Make no mistake, the mission of the Boys and Girls Club is incredibly important, more important than preservation alone, but it shouldn’t trump or infringe upon the quality of life of those who live in what is primarily a residential neighborhood,” he said.

Allison Weiss, a member of the Germantown Civic Association, has been seeking a compromise as well. With so many vacant lots scattered throughout Germantown, she urged the Comcast Corporation to revitalize one of them by building a new club on one of them rather than tear down the one at 23 W Penn St.

“Properties like this should be considered for development before tearing down our history,” Weiss said.

Weiss also expressed pride in the historical nature of the neighborhood and believes the existing building is an integral piece maintaining that.

“A building of this size and appearance is not in keeping with the existing historic neighborhood,” Weiss said of the proposed, new building.

Weiss, along with many other community members, is concerned that construction of the new building would pose a threat to traffic and parking in the area. She suggested a meeting between residents of the neighborhood and the Boys and Girls Club CEO to reach a compromise and voice their opinions on the project.

Greg Paulmier, Democratic Leader in the12th Ward and a long time progressive Germantown activist, shares Weiss’ sentiments.

“Its cultural significance as a structure, inside and out, is one to be acknowledged and preserved,” he said.

When the demolition and plans for the new building were revealed, community members had a meeting with 8th District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass who listened to their concerns.

After the permit for total demolition of the building was issued, Bass urged the residents to reach out to the Boys and Girls Club. There has been no response from the organization, however.

The renovated Ralph J. Roberts Boys and Girls Club will be equipped with an Internet Essentials Lab, Digital Literacy Center, STEM lab, art room, Kids Café, dance room, music studio, social recreation space, several classrooms, a double gym, basketball, and volleyball areas as well as a full-size hockey rink, courtesy of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, according to the Comcast Corporation’s website

Asked for a comment, a Comcast spokesperson declined.

Currently, Beisert’s nomination to the Philadelphia Historical Commission has been accepted as complete. A meeting of the commission to decide the fate of the Germantown Boys Club will take place in April.

-Julia DeGregorio is a Local intern. She can be reached at intern@chestnuthilllocal.com