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‘People can’t believe they’re in Kensington’ when they see new health center in historic bank

Preserving a historic bank could be the first step to healing one of Philadelphia's most ravaged neighborhoods.

The newly renovated Esperanza Health Center at Kensington and Allegheny in Philadelphia is located in a grand bank building next to the busy Market-Frankford El station.
The newly renovated Esperanza Health Center at Kensington and Allegheny in Philadelphia is located in a grand bank building next to the busy Market-Frankford El station.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Once upon a time, the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny — the notorious K&A — was a commercial mecca, where families came to shop, visit doctors, and do their banking. There were no skeletal figures drifting through the shadows under the Market-Frankford El, no opioid dealers hissing their come-ons. You didn’t have to push your way through entire weather systems of trash or avert your eyes from some awful scene at the end of an alley.

Presiding over the intersection was the white-columned temple of the Kensington Trust Co. The Depression-era bank was never the biggest building in the neighborhood, nor the most beautiful, but it had a reassuring presence, as if it were invincible in its stone skin. People would stop to check the time on the clock hanging over its brass-trimmed entrance, and the time was usually right.

The odds that K&A might return to its glory days (or, more realistically, normal days) got a boost this week when the Esperanza Health Center opened a new clinic in the Kensington Trust building. Always a source of light on that dark corner of Allegheny Avenue, the limestone bank has been burnished into a glowing beacon for the neighborhood by Brawer & Hauptman Architects. And yes, the clock works again.

Esperanza’s decision to buy and renovate the bank isn’t strictly a preservation story. The faith-based, nonprofit health provider, which aims to serve the entire Kensington community, had been renting space in a nearby office tower when the vacant bank came up for sale. Even though Esperanza’s clinic was on a high floor, every morning a staffer would have to scrub blood and feces from the entryway. Taking over a building at street level was only likely to increase the challenges, but Esperanza felt it was important to become a visible participant in Kensington. “The neighborhood is so traumatized,” said its director, Susan Post.

The move was a brave act, and so is the treatment of the old bank. Despite its location next to the El, where opioid users congregate, Esperanza and its architects chose to create a transparent, barrier-free entrance.

Visitors pass effortlessly through the bank’s stone columns into a soaring, light-filled lobby. To underscore the message of welcome, Esperanza has installed a public cafe in a nook to the left of the doors. Anyone can sit there or use the restroom. Along with a full array of medical specialties, which include dental, prenatal, and mental health services, Esperanza intends to set aside rooms for classes and community meetings. Cooking classes are planned to help residents learn about good nutrition. “People can’t believe they’re in Kensington,” marveled Justin Perry, Esperanza’s associate director of operations.

Not that keeping the building open was easy. Depression-era banks, which were designed to project solidity in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, tend to be forbidding structures. Virtually all the major El stops north of Center City are anchored by limestone banks, although few can match the grandeur of Kensington Trust, which was probably built in the early ’30s as an expansion of its original building.

Still, the building had just a single entrance on Allegheny Avenue, which filtered through a narrow vestibule. Since Esperanza was anticipating more foot traffic, the project’s lead architects, Scott Larkin and Amanda Brahler, decided to convert two of its large windows into entrances. That meant cutting out big chunks of limestone.

Kensington Trust isn’t listed on the city’s historic register, but it is still an important building. It was designed by Hoffman-Henon, the firm that gave us the exuberant (and now largely demolished) Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street. Although the bank’s interior is quieter, it was decked out with decorative plaster moldings on the walls and plenty of pink marble on the floor. Since it had been occupied until 2015, it was still largely intact.

Larkin and Brahler, who also designed Children’s Hospital’s Karabots Center in West Philadelphia, adopted a strategy that was respectful, but still allowed modification of the bank to suit Esperanza’s needs. The most visible intervention is the new mezzanine in the lobby, where the teller’s desks once were.

Even though it’s a sizable addition, it is so deftly done that you hardly mind. The mezzanine hugs the edges of high-ceilinged lobby, leaving the central space open. Large windows, which help lighten up the mezzanine, allow for glimpses of activity. That generosity of spirit continues on the upper floors, where the exam rooms are fitted out with windows that offer dramatic views of the neighborhood.

As part of the effort to make the lobby welcoming, the staircase to the mezzanine was designed to double as a small amphitheater, so the room can be used for events. Even the architects’ decision to paint the decorative trim white works to the design’s advantage, brightening the room. Larkin and Brahler also extended the back of the building along H Street to make room for additional services. Best of all, they have preserved two immense bank vaults, one as a chapel, the other as an employee break room.

For all the elegant touches, you can never forget you’re in Kensington, where crime and violence remain ever-present. As part of the $22 million project, Esperanza acquired a large, city-owned lot at the far end of the block, along Westmoreland Street, for a secure parking lot. The site has its own grim history: It was occupied by a warehouse destroyed in a spectacular fire in 2007. So great was the heat that 400 people were forced to flee, and seven homes were consumed by the flames.

Afterward, community activists hoped to turn the land into a park, something Kensington sorely needs. Instead, they now have a graceless, 100-car garage that presents a harsh blank wall to the neighborhood. The designer, KSS Architects, was clearly trying to keep the structure below the height of adjacent houses, but there is no missing this beast. Since Esperanza plans to build a community center on the remaining open land, it would have made more sense to camouflage the garage with that building.

Esperanza also owns several rowhouses on H Street, and it’s not clear what will happen to them. The first time I toured the health center, someone had dumped a heap of car tires on the steps of one of the houses. While maintaining these houses is a struggle, the row is another important connection to the neighborhood, which is especially in need of affordable housing.

None of this takes away from the achievement of building the new health center, surely one of the most positive things to happen to Kensington in a long time. In preserving this important symbol of civic life, Esperanza has taken a first step toward healing an ailing neighborhood.