Why Remember Edison High School?


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Edison High School, originally Northeast Manual Training School, October 16, 1912.

Nearly every high school in America sent graduates off to the place we nervously called “Saigon U.” In the late 1960s, we knew all too well that some would return in body bags. But no high school in America suffered as many casualties as Philadelphia’s Edison High. This school at 7th and Lehigh lost 54 young men in Vietnam.

Today, the Edison/Fareira High School occupies a much newer building at Front and Luzerne Streets. Sacrifices of the original are remembered there in a large, memorial plaque listing the names each one of the 54 casualties, Addison through Zerggen, cast in bronze above a large bas-relief of the school’s distinctive Lehigh Avenue façade.

The days for the building that was once home to Edison (and Northeast High School previous to 1957) are numbered. Last week, fire roared through its crenellated towers and we saw spectacular images, including this one of smoke seeping eerily through mortar joints. The fire on August 3rd, 2011 quickly grew to four alarms and makes for a dramatic final chapter in a century-long story. While the cause of the fire remains under investigation, there is much we know for certain about the place.

“Collegiate Gothic Revival,” best known from examples throughout the Ivy League, “reached its full flower in Philadelphia public schools in the Thomas A. Edison School (1903-1905),” according to its National Register nomination. (See a .pdf of the 57-page document here.) Outside, architect Lloyd Titus reached back in time with his use of gargoyles and towers; inside he designed for the present and projected the future. No earlier school extant in Philadelphia had an auditorium and Titus’s innovative plan mixed classrooms and shops that were designed for very specific purposes. The goal: a school aimed not only to educate but to train a large workforce. The building’s first iteration as the Northeast Manual Training School assured graduates be not scholars or soldiers, but workers ready for an industrial city packed with job opportunities.

It was about training, but it was also about location. A century ago, 7th and Lehigh had grown into the nexus of Philadelphia’s industrial production. Within a mile, fresh graduates would and did find employment in scores of foundries, factories and mills. Among the largest and most famous was the nearby Quaker Lace, which opened in 1880 at 4th and Lehigh as the Horner Brother Carpet Company. As the new school’s doors opened, sounds from all manner of factories, but especially the clatter of more than 100 Nottingham lace curtain looms filled nearby streets. This sound is something like what can be heard today at the Boote Mill Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts—only more so. (See and listen here.)


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Miniature Breech-Loaded Cannon fabricated at Northeast Manual Training School,
later Edison High School, October 22, 1907.

That Philadelphia is long gone, and so are the mills. And if last week’s fire on Lehigh Avenue sounded a bit familiar, it’s for good reason. On September 19, 1994, local drug dealers hired school-age children to set fire to the Quaker Lace building. Mill operations had ceased seven years earlier and the police found a corner in the empty, block-long building a convenient outpost to observe drug traffic. An eight-alarm fire (twice the alarms of the recent fire at Edison) destroyed the police outpost, but also the entire factory, 20 nearby properties and 11 cars. A special report on trends in teen arson for Homeland Security documented the incident. (See the .pdf.)

Philadelphia’s hulking, empty buildings are poignant evidence of the city’s deindustrialization. Places like Quaker Lace and Edison High School had become popular destinations for vandals and, more interestingly, for urban explorers such as photographers Tom Bejgrowicz and Urban Atrophy.

As these authentic sites disappear, one by one, what do we have left? We have memory, of course, and we have the photographic record, which documents layers of time and good intent, including the ideas of educators who taught young people how to make everything from the finest lace to miniature weapons of war.

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2 Comments

  1. Jerald Foster
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Memories, some good, some bad, some that give us those subtle lessons that frame future events even though at the moment they don’t seem that significant. A simple name change that’s all it was. Build a new school in the Northeast and rename the old school to fit more appropriately in the scheme of a politically motivated board of education.

    January 1957 will live in my memory forever and I wonder who else remembers that day when the tradition and history of our school, Northeast High School, was taken from us. We were told that the decision was motivated simply because the city had expanded and that our school was no longer in the Northeast section of the city and that a new school in the new Northeast was a more appropriate location to carry on with the strong tradition of Northeast. In reality, it was not the location that was at issue. What was at issue was the changing population of our school. The school was becoming too black and the alumni had strong influence on the board of education. The decision was to support the alumni and move the tradition farther to the north where a more appropriate neighborhood would continue the proud tradition of Northeast. We were abandoned, had no say in the matter and just had to tolerate the decision.

    At the time we had an All American Athlete, Herb Adderly, on OUR football team. He was to get a diploma that would read Edison High School instead of Northeast where he was an absolutely dominating athlete on the basketball court and football field. Everyone loved or idolized Herb. The student body went on strike, an actual walk out by the entire school to protest the name change and to give Herb his just due, a diploma from Northeast. We were half successful. The graduates of the class of 1957 received a diploma from Northeast/Edison High School.

    A major disappointment to me was the day when Herb went to the “new” Northeast High, a place he probably never set foot upon prior to the day about five years ago when the “New” Northeast retired his jersey number. Herb had distinguished himself at Michigan State and with the Green Bay Packers. But his accomplishments were taken away from Edison by Herb himself. Congratulations Herb, you completed the transition of the tradition and history to the “New” Northeast and in the process abandoned those who really supported you, the left behinds at Edison.

    I was 14 at the time, a sophomore at Northeast/Edison and was then and am still now white. But the lesson learned was that bigotry and racial injustice was not something that was limited to the South. It was alive and well in the City of Brotherly Love, my hometown. Our history and tradition was eradicated, taken away in one quick decision by a bigoted board of education. But I know that the tradition that started as Northeast continued on. I realized this in recently reading that Edison had more servicemen killed in combat in Vietnam than any other high school in the country, no matter what the school is called, the tradition is still there.

    Does anyone else remember the embarrassment of January 1957?

  2. Ron Bower
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    I was a member of the Class of 1961, the first class to have attended all three years as Edison High School. Despite the fact they changed the name, the spirit was still there. They carried the trophies to the new school, they changed the stationary, those who graduated from Northeast High School remained in our memories and becme part of our legend. The neighborhood remained the same, the same people lived here, at least for a short while. the boys that went to that school carried on both the fine tradtions of the sports program, and the academic programs remained intact, with a staff of dedicated teachers and the fact that we were still in love with the girls of Kensington High and saw Ben Franklin as our natural “enemies,” (at least on the football field,) 51 years later I still el people that I graduated form Edison High, The old Northeast Public, never forgetting those wh went before me. Herb Adderly, through his cousin and my classmate, Nelson, were the ones repsonsible for my attending Michigan State, the best decision of my life. All is well in my mmory of this fine school. You can call it whatever you want, the school was the people and I am proud to tell folks that I went there, and as a Vietnam veteran and a solder for 42 years, I am still inawe of those who died in Viettnam and I remember them every day.