A Place in Time spotlights a significant cultural resource - a district, site, building, structure or object - entered in the National Register of Historic Places.
Charles Carroll Public School. Photo by Robert Powers

Charles Carroll Public School. Photo by Robert Powers

By the late 1960s the Philadelphia public school system was faced with a crisis. The urban population, after years of growth and expansion to the city’s outskirts and beyond, was now in decline. At the same time racial tensions became prevalent as the urban population became more integrated. Many Philadelphia public schools, especially those found in integrating or depressed neighborhoods, had been built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These schools were rapidly deteriorating because of a mounting maintenance backlog and shrinking enrollment.

The School District of Philadelphia (SDP) had spent several decades responding to post-World War II population growth and expansion by building new schools. In the decades leading up to the 1960s, SDP constructed 50 new school buildings, but these often tended to be in newly developing neighborhoods at the city’s edges, often heavily white. This led many to question what appeared to be SDP’s neglect of older schools in integrating neighborhoods in favor of new schools elsewhere.

In the Port Richmond neighborhood, the 1923 Charles Carroll Public School had been designed by school district architect Irwin T. Catharine to reflect modern school design standards of the Progressive Era, with defined educational use spaces and bright airy windows. The school served the largely white student population from the surrounding industrial neighborhood. By the 1960s, the neighborhood demographics had shifted to become predominantly African American, and many of the local jobs and businesses began to move or close. Carroll was slated for abandonment, a victim of low enrollment and budget shortfalls; however, concern was raised by city civil rights voices regarding access to education as schools moved farther away toward the white suburbs.

As a response, SDP hired Harry Saunders, a Stanford University education professor, to evaluate the state of Philadelphia’s public school system. Among the findings in Saunders’ 1965 report were that 88 percent of the students in the city system were receiving “inadequate education,” and 66 of the public school buildings were insufficient because they failed to meet modern education and fire safety standards. Many schools were flagged for demolition and replacement, but a small group was recommended for remodeling. Carroll was among them.

Although Carroll had been closed with plans to construct a new school at another location, Saunders took neighborhood and budget concerns into consideration and recommended that the school be rehabilitated with the construction of new additions. These additions would reflect not only modern design aesthetics but also the latest trends in education methods.

Completed in 1970, the new additions built at the north, west and south sides of the property exhibited a touch of the Brutalist style of architecture and connected with the earlier 1923 building to form an open square when viewed from the sky. These additions contained classroom space, a combined gym and auditorium, space for building mechanicals, and one-story corridors connecting them all together. At the center was a paved playground courtyard for recess space. The newly revamped school, like others built during this time, was intended to appear like a fortress on the exterior but open, collaborative and interconnected on the interior. School design was envisioned to be like an oasis for the students to escape from the struggles and hardships of inner-city life at that time. The school would remain an active part of the neighborhood, even incorporating evening activities and programing until it was ultimately closed in 2013.

Through its physical design and appearance, especially the later 1970 additions, the Charles Carroll Public School tells the story of public education in the city of Philadelphia during a time of great change, turmoil and economic hardship, particularly for inner-city African American students. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2018 for its significance to education, allowing future owners to potentially use historic tax credits to adapt the building to a new use.


Recent listings in the National Register of Historic Places include Edelman Schoolhouse, Moore Township, Northampton County; First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Philadelphia Northeast Branch; John and Alice Fullam House, Wrightstown Township, Bucks County; Oaks Cloister, Philadelphia; and John Updike Childhood Home, Shillington, Berks County.


David Maher is a historic preservation specialist who reviews National Register nominations in PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.