It was two weeks ago that Paris’ revered Notre Dame Cathedral, a symbol of religious and architectural wonder that had stood for centuries, succumbed to fire. Its remaining shell, still standing defiant, will encase a rebuilding process.
That thought returned to me, as I read about the latest chapter in the neglect of Philadelphia’s own Germantown High School.
I had just driven past that abandoned property a few Fridays ago, taking the opportunity of a holiday arrival by my out-of-town son and 4-year-old granddaughter to view the building where I matriculated during the mid-'60s. What we saw was sad and shameful.
No, it could not be compared with the devastation of the 850-year-old Parisian shrine. But the decay was omnipresent.
The school’s formerly stately campus — once lush with mature trees and green lawns — was now surrounded by a cyclone fence. With that foreboding presence, erosion of the building itself was quite apparent.
A structure that was erected in 1914 — with a 99-year history of knowledge exchange and a looming presence in a historic neighborhood — was now sitting like a hulking corpse. Its brick and stone body, so prominent in its day, looked battered.
It’s hard to believe that six years have passed since the city decided to desert the property, rather than restore and repurpose it. In a town of so many historic and lovely structures, it stands as a testimony to the lack of attention too often given.
Germantown was one of 23 schools that the budget-minded and now-defunct School Reform Commission decided to close. It is scheduled for a tax sale on May 15.
When I first entered the building, as a 10th grader in 1964, I was struck by the enormity and feeling of permanence that the structure evoked, its marble lobby floors casting the look of a time-cherished existence. The first time I moved onto a bench that was part of a stationary desk, attached to the wooden floor, I became part of another generation whose bodies would occupy that space.
Those classrooms had seen an evolution. In its early days, the school was home to many students from old blue-blood families who would later move to the Main Line. They were followed by sons and daughters from adjacent Irish, Italian, Jewish, and African American communities.
It was made all the more special as it was in the midst of one of America’s most historic areas, made famous by the 1777 Battle of Germantown. Thus, the influx of new students to the timeless surroundings every year acted as a kind of replenishment.
Sure, when I graduated in 1967 there was well over the official capacity of 2,200 students in the school. By the time it closed in 2013, the count was approximately 650.
But if the demand for such space ebbs, there is no sense in not utilizing the supply that is the building for other demands. If not a new charter school, then why not a condo or apartment building that still manages to preserve the building‘s character?
The history of Germantown can certainly serve as a lure for such development. It would parallel the attraction present in many restored city neighborhoods.
In predominantly Catholic France, less than 5 percent of Catholics reportedly attend mass on a regular basis. At the very least, the symbolic existence of Notre Dame has demanded its restoration.
While Germantown High certainly carries nowhere near that level of prominence, it is important in its own right. It too is a piece of a fabric that binds Germantown as a community and Philadelphia overall.
Let’s hope the city finds the wisdom to keep this iconic structure standing and allow it to function on some level. Maybe, just maybe, that will serve to stave off the flames of neglect that engulf much of Philadelphia.