Community Revitalization: How to Bring a Community Back from the Brink, In the Age of Gentrification

The re-opening of the shuttered Roberts Vaux High School is a story of a bold vision to catalyze the rebirth of a neighborhood through the preservation, restoration and adaptation of this impressive building. A unique assembly of different programs within the building  is an exciting and innovative undertaking for the Sharswood-Blumberg community, as it will now have a local, student-directed curriculum for its high school students putting students directly at the center of their own learning, as well as future employment opportunities; community meeting space; and easily accessed health care from highly trained and experienced professionals, all within walking distance of home, in a beautifully restored historic building.

The Sharswood-Blumberg neighborhood of North Philadelphia, bordering Ridge Avenue west of Broad Street, was particularly run-down and economically neglected. In addition, the School District closed its only neighborhood high school – The Promise Academy at Roberts Vaux High School –  in 2013, and reassigned neighborhood students to far-flung districts throughout the city. The result, predictably, was even higher drop-out rates, contributing to increased crime and certain continuing systemic poverty for the community.

In May 2017, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) used its wholly owned instrumentality, the Philadelphia Housing Authority Development Corporation (PHADC), to purchase the historic Vaux School building from the School District of Philadelphia, and renamed it the Vaux Community Building. That transaction, and a partnership with Big Picture Learning, made it possible for construction to begin immediately to bring a high school back to the neighborhood by the fall of that year. In September of 2017, a portion of the building was ready to welcome the first class of 9th grade students to the Vaux Big Picture High School. Another part of the building will house a public health partner for the neighborhood, Temple University’s College of Public Health Department of Nursing.


Neighborhood Transformation Plan

PHA was awarded a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to develop the Sharswood-Blumberg Neighborhood Transformation Plan and the renovation and restoration of this historic building is a critical element of this plan. PHA has partnered with key stakeholders including public housing and neighborhood residents, the Mayor’s Office, Police Department, School District, other City agencies, Girard College, neighborhood schools, non-profit organizations, and local business owners both for their insight as well as their investment in this innovative community initiative.

Working groups identified key issues and obstacles to achieving the vision for the community, and developed a set of strategies that everyone can work toward implementing over an 18 month period. The plan includes new commercial and educational facilities, an employment readiness program, small business development, and other services designed to benefit existing and new residents. The general belief is that you cannot have a neighborhood of choice without a high quality, neighborhood school of choice.


Historical Significance

PHA has pledged to invest in renovations to the Vaux Community Building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as significant in recognition of its intact Art Deco design. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which annually publishes its Endangered Properties List every December, placed Vaux High School on that list in 2013. Beyond its historic architectural significance, the building is a true neighborhood asset that contributes to community identity and stability.

Constructed in 1936, the Roberts Vaux School was the main junior high school for the Sharswood neighborhood of Philadelphia, and today stands as a monumental landmark in the community. Designed by Irwin Catharine, the chief architect of the Philadelphia schools, the building is an intact example of the Art Deco style and reflects the predominant characteristics of school architecture during the period. The building was later converted to a high school, and remained in service as a school until 2013 when it was closed as one of 23 district-run schools closed city-wide by the School District.

The period of 1905-1937, during which the Roberts Vaux School was constructed, saw the most significant period of construction of school buildings in the city’s history, with 140 new schools erected. Schools erected after 1905 reflect the educational philosophies and priorities of the new centralized administration, which sought to design to meet the needs of the city and not just the needs of a particular ward. As a result, schools from this period have common site elements: sites occupying full city blocks rather than portions of blocks, siting of buildings close to the street, open play areas toward the rear (later paved), metal fencing at the site perimeter. The use of architectural styles generally follows the styles in vogue during the corresponding periods. Catharine employed the Gothic and Jacobean Revival styles in the 1910s and 1920s and later utilized the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles in the late 1920s and 1930s.


Phase One of…

Architectural design of the next phase in the life of this building began with a feasibility study by BWA Architecture + Planning in early 2017. Subsequently, the team at CICADA Architecture/Planning brought the project through documentation and construction, working with construction manager T N Ward as part of a design-build team. The first phase of renovation work was fast-tracked for completion during the summer of 2017, and included covered approximately 68,000 square feet, or 30% of the total building area, with an estimated price tag of over $5.7 million.  The rehab effort covered 10 classrooms, a multi-purpose room, administrative offices, cafeteria, health partner suite, gymnasium and locker rooms, restrooms, circulation areas (entry vestibules, corridors, stairs), support service areas and building systems upgrades (boiler, electrical, pump rooms).

The incremental growth of the Vaux Big Picture School over four years (2017-2020) calls for phasing the partial occupancy of the Vaux Community Building until the school reaches its full complement of 500 students. Other parts of the building will remain available to develop community services that address the strategic goals of the neighborhood transformation plan.

The restoration of the Vaux Community Building is a shining example of how urban neighborhoods can have high quality schools of choice and other high quality services through public/private partnerships that bring the resources necessary to make this dream possible. 


CICADA Architecture/Planning, Inc. was instrumental in shepherding the development of this first-wave center of rebirth in the Sharswood-Blumberg neighborhood revitalization. We are deeply proud of our work and continued commitment to conscientious, community-minded projects. Vaux Community Building is an embodiment of our mission to blend functional, beautiful design with the smart adaptation and reuse of forgotten spaces.

The Vaux Community Building has recently been nominated to the prestigious 25th Annual Preservation Alliance Awards for its design of the community-centered reuse of the once-abandoned iconic space. Award recipients will be announced on June 6, 2018 by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

Architectural Photography by Kendon Photography