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Creating more space for peace and social justice

Chris Mohr, Executive Director of Friends Center, sat down with us to discuss how a recent design grant is helping the Center plan for the future of one of its buildings.

Friends Center, located at 15th and Cherry Streets in Center City Philadelphia, has been both a communal and administrative space for the Quaker community since 1856. Today, Friends Center still fulfills this purpose and also leases space to nonprofit organizations whose missions are in line with traditional Quaker values.  In addition to its own administrative offices, current tenants include The Trust for Public Land, Scattergood Foundation, Girls Inc., and Friends Child Care Center.

Chris Mohr, Executive Director of Friends Center and a Quaker himself (Quakers are members of a historically Christian group of religious movements generally known as the Religious Society of Friends). He sees the role his organization plays in leasing space to other nonprofits as key to serving the broader community through the Quaker tradition. 

“Our service really is to provide space for those groups, and they in turn serve all kinds of different groups… The wider audience we serve by helping these groups have a space is really quite something.”

Friends Center’s campus is made up of three buildings: the Race Street Friends Meetinghouse, the 1501 Cherry Street office building, and 1520 Race Street.  The Meetinghouse is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1974, 1501 Cherry is the Center’s main administrative offices and was awarded LEED Platinum Certification in 2009 after a round of sustainable improvements, an accomplishment Chris is especially proud of.  1520 Race Street, a mid-19th century former school building, now hosts a daycare and seven other nonprofits. However, the structure needs renovations to serve the community more effectively.

“It’s got some deferred maintenance issues, it’s got some capital replacement needs, and it’s got also usability needs, especially physical accessibility for handicapped people… The need to make access to that building equal for all seems imperative as well as addressing all the facility needs,” says Chris.  

The Collaborative focused on 1520 Race, the mid-19th century building in the background.

To bring the building back to optimal use, Chris sought the help of Community Design Collaborative to put together a team of volunteer architects, engineers, and other design professionals to assess the building and create a feasibility study for possible future uses.  

“I thought the Collaborative would provide a multidisciplinary team that could take a look at all the building’s needs and come up with a really well--thought-out conceptual design to assist us in gaining support to improve the building.”

After the design grant was awarded, the Collaborative team soon went to work assessing the building’s issues while a Community Advisory Group made up of representatives from each of Friend’s three equity partner groups—the American Friends Service Committee, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends, the Central Philadelphia Meeting congregation—and tenants of the Center was formed.  

The Advisory Group met twice with the Collaborative volunteers, first to examine the existing uses of the building and to explore possible new ones, and then to provide feedback on a draft concept by the Collaborative volunteers.  In the end, the Collaborative team created conceptual designs that were sensitive to the Friends community’s wants and needs, all while respecting the historic fabric of the Center.  Chris attributes part of the success of the project to the diversity of experience and expertise of the volunteer team.

“The Collaborative team was pretty extraordinary because we had very experienced architects, engineers, interior designers, a historic preservation architect, and cost estimators and included both senior people and newer younger professionals—a really good mix of both new thinking as well as experienced thinking,” he says. “I think it provided a good mix of ideas and options for us to move forward, as well as looking at some very nice design precedents for some of the proposed options—all being done in a way that respects the historic fabric of the existing building.”

Strategies for optimizing 1520 Race: One option is to expand daycare to the second floor.

For Chris, working with the Collaborative team and the advisory committee was a great learning experience all around.  He is now able to communicate the extent of the issues with the building and the cost to fix them to the Friends Center board of directors.  Also, many people, community members and volunteers alike, had to chance to learn all the great work that happens at the Center. 

“People gained a new appreciation for what Friends Center does… It’s an incredible resource for the city of Philadelphia and the region in terms of the work that happens out of here.”

Learn more about the feasibility study for renovations and the volunteers who partnered with at Friends Center on the project. 

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