International House Philadelphia is closing its namesake West Philadelphia dorm and arts tower and putting the structure up for sale, as it finds its mission of providing a haven for international culture and scholarship less vital in an increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan city.

Josh Sevin, who leads the nonprofit owner and manager of the concrete landmark, built in 1970, said proceeds from the sale would be cycled into the group’s refashioned mission as a hub for immigrant services and international business with a much more limited real estate footprint.

Sevin said the aging 37th and Chestnut Streets building has become crushingly expensive to maintain and faces tough competition for residents from new housing options nearby that are eager to welcome international students. Meanwhile, he said, the types of cultural celebrations that were once International House’s specialty are now held citywide.

“The challenges we face organizationally are a result of progress toward our larger goals,” Sevin said this week, ahead of a planned public announcement Thursday of the decision to sell the building. “It’s because there are more housing options, it’s because there is more comfort, it’s because the universities have invested so much in support and services for international students.”

The International House Philadelphia nonprofit was founded in 1908, when housing discrimination against foreign students in the city was widespread. It first housed students in a house at 39th and Spruce Streets, then moved into a former hotel at 15th and Cherry Streets to accommodate a growing foreign-student population.

After that building was slated for demolition, work began on the current structure, built in the Brutalist style, on land donated by the city.

Designed by Bower & Fradley in 1968, International House at 37th and Chestnut is an example of Brutalist style architecture. It was built as a home-away-from-home for foreign college students.
Inga Saffron
Designed by Bower & Fradley in 1968, International House at 37th and Chestnut is an example of Brutalist style architecture. It was built as a home-away-from-home for foreign college students.

In the following years, its mission expanded to include events, celebrations and exhibitions highlighting international cultures, attended by residents and the broader public. Among these initiatives was the Lightbox Film Center, which has become a local institution in its own right, showing international and independent films unavailable elsewhere.

“I saw the power of international students living in a foreign country for educational purposes to also foster a lot of intercultural understanding and respect,” said former resident Ludo Scheffer, a Dutch native who now teaches psychology at Drexel University.

Scheffer moved into International House in 1988 when he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, and remained for six years. He chairs the nonprofit’s board of trustees, which voted in February to sell the building.

“We kind of accomplished our mission,” he said.

When the tower was built in 1970, foreign-born Philadelphians made up just 6.5 percent of the city’s population, according to census estimates in the Pew Charitable Trusts’ “State of Philadelphia" report released this month. As of 2017, that figure has jumped to nearly 14 percent, according to the Pew report.

With this increasing diversity has come a greater concentration on services for international students by faculty, administrators, and housing officials, as well as by owners of privately managed, off-campus student dorms and apartments.

Community College of Philadelphia, for example, has cited its interest in recruiting more foreign students as one reason for partnering with Radnor Property Group to build apartment towers, known as the Hamilton, on school-owned property.

Sevin said new housing offerings are understandably preferable to most students over the worn and dated decor of the International House units.

The organization has struggled in recent years to maintain occupancy in its 346 dorm-type units, most arranged in 10-bedroom suites with shared bathrooms, kitchens, and lounges, although demand remains strong for the 33 apartment-style units, he said.

International House’s counseling and support services for foreign students also increasingly overlap with what universities are doing.

"The schools in the neighborhood have a lot of international students that are included in a more formal orientation-and-welcome program than there used to be,” said Deborah Diamond, president of the nonprofit Campus Philly, which works to encourage international and U.S. students to enroll in Philadelphia colleges.

Meanwhile, International House also faces growing competition for its cultural events, as more such celebrations are held by other organizations in the city, Sevin said.

One example, he said, is Lunar New Year celebrations, which in decades past could be found only at International House and in Chinatown. This year, there are 12 such celebrations, he said, citing Visit Philadelphia’s Uwishunu event website.

“It’s the classic business where we’ve been disrupted,” Sevin said. “But nonprofits should always look to be disrupted in the direction of their mission.”

As part of its decision to explore the tower’s sale, the nonprofit hired Philadelphia-based real estate services firm AthenianRazak to evaluate how to best present it to developers, and has since retained a team at commercial property group CBRE to market the building.

AthenianRazak principal Alan Razak said no restrictions are being placed on the property’s sale, so a developer could raze the building. But the group’s study found that it would most profitably be reused with its existing shell intact, since the heavy cement structure would be expensive to demolish, he said.

The building appears best suited for reuse as apartments or student housing, Razak said.

Sevin said the nonprofit is in talks with outside arts groups in an effort to find a new organizational home for the Lightbox Film Center, which he hopes will be able to live on independent of International House.

He declined to speculate on how much the building’s sale may yield, but said the proceeds would be invested into what he characterized as a hub for organizations working to aid immigrants and forge international business ties. Groups would be able to collaborate while sharing office, meeting, and event space at the “iHub,” as Sevin called it.

But while plans are still in their early stages, Sevin said his group is now circumspect about owning the offices where it would be housed.

“I don’t know that we’re looking to own, or get back into this situation where we’re overly focused on the real estate," he said.