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.)
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.