Kathy sat down with us recently to share her volunteer experience. She chose to talk about two standout projects—a conceptual design to reuse a vacant, mid-century modern middle school (and former synagogue) in Wynnefield and a “blitz build” for the Athletic Recreation Center in Sharswood.
In 2012, the annex to the Beeber Middle School had been closed for over a decade. The community’s hope was to bring the building back as a multi-generational recreational and community facility. Kathy and the rest of the Collaborative volunteer team worked with the Wynnefield Overbrook Revitalization Corporation and several community organizations to develop a preliminary design and cost estimate for repurposing the building and site.
The school building was a former synagogue designed in 1949 by architect Henry Magaziner. How did its mid-century modern lineage shape your experience?
Learning about the building was a very interesting process. I visited the Athenaeum to review some of the original project records including drawings and photos of the building after its construction. It was simultaneously heartening and heartbreaking to stand in the same spot where those old photos were taken and see how much the space had deteriorated since the Beeber Annex school has been closed. The building does have good bones, and our team's structural engineer, Michael Paul, reassured us that it could support many of the modifications and proposed uses that the community stakeholders and team members came up with.
What did the community want to accomplish?
The community hoped that the building could become a community center. At its center would be a space that could function as a gym, a performance venue, and a catering hall. Other uses included classrooms and a computer lab, all readily accommodated by the building.
The project had a complicated site with retaining walls, and steep slopes in some places. How did the team address this challenge?
This is where our landscape designer, Ann Marie Schneider, was very clever. She designed a ramp integrated into the landscape to eliminate the steps leading to the main entrance, added tiers to the site in other places for seating and stormwater management, and even used the slope as a playscape design element! Inside the building we located an elevator and a short ramp to navigate some of the idiosyncrasies of the floor levels.
How did this project represent a turning point for you?
Richard Winston, AIA, a principal at my firm, BWA architecture + planning, encourages everyone to volunteer with the Collaborative. It’s hard not to be involved with such great role models!This was the first Collaborative project where I felt like an integral design team member. I got to help with the site survey, design and drawing production, coordination with project engineers, and presentations at stakeholder meetings. The best part of working on a Collaborative project is that an intern architect can act as a project manager, and the client is very grateful for the help!
What was the greatest challenge for this project?
Funding… we provided different ideas at different cost levels to give them a menu to choose from so they could renovate the building in stages.
AEC Cares is a national nonprofit that sponsors a community service project every year in the host city for the AIA National Convention. AEC Cares does this in the form of a “blitz build” that brings architects, engineers, and contractors to volunteer together to implement a one-day building makeover. In 2016, Philadelphia hosted the AIA National Convention. The Collaborative acted as Philly ambassador, helping AEC Cares find the right partner and site for projectPhiladelphia—Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and the Athletic Recreation Center in Sharswood. The blitz build took place in May 2016.
Not surprisingly, projectPhiladelphia required lots of advance planning. Kathy was part of the volunteer team formed by the Collaborative to set the build blitz scope, break the rec center into work zones, create plans to guide the work, coordinate prep work, and make sure the right kinds and amounts of materials were donated.
You put in a substantial amount of hours (92!) on the AEC Cares project. What was your role in the project?
The project wouldn’t have happened without Jeff Brummer! My role was much smaller. I have a made-up word for it, “manudger”, which is mostly trying to get folks to do things. That means following up with other team members, drafting things for those that needed an extra set of hands, and reminding some of the product donors that they had committed to the project.”
What did you do during the actual build day?
Each of the design team members was assigned to one of the spaces and a team of volunteers. Mine was the kitchen/nutrition classroom. We reviewed the plans and assigned tasks. It was amazing how everyone jumped in, and I'm glad that so many skilled folks were able to lend their expertise. It's one thing to draw a room layout and another to have skilled volunteers install cabinets, countertop, tile backsplash, shelving, and teaching boards in a few hours!
Did you get to meet the recreation center staff?
Yes, I met site supervisor Brian Sell and afterschool program coordinator Miss Diane. What impressed me most is their energy and personal investment in the facility, which undoubtedly has a lot to do with how much the kids love being at Athletic.
Do you have a favorite “before and after” space?
I'm a bit biased, but go Team Kitchen! If I had to pick a second favorite, it would be the main lobby. Those stair-seats are amazing, and Howard Lebold and his team put a ton of work into them. It was incredible to see how quickly the kids took over and made themselves at home on the stairs and the adults on that great orange couch that Jeff found on sale. I am looking forward to seeing the mural when it is completed and all of the spaces in use by the community!
This was a new approach for the Collaborative. How was the experience?
It was a rare opportunity to walk in, imagine the improvements, and then see everything in place in just a few months. We got to return to the center after the blitz build and see the kids enjoying the space created for them. It was really cool to see the before and after.