Bok North? Historic Kensington school reopening as space for creatives

It took two years to renovate the giant building, which will open mid-March.

The former Thomas Powers School

The former Thomas Powers School

Courtesy Kreate Hub
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

Constructed in 1899, the striking Victorian building at the corner of Frankford and Somerset was listed on the National Register of Historic Places three decades ago. But for the past five years, its Romanesque walls and Flemish gables have sat empty.

That’s about to change. The former Thomas Powers School in the River Wards is being converted into a massive studio space for local artists.

Behind the project is the New York-based Kreate Hub, which rebrands old buildings into makers’ spaces. In Kensington, the company hopes to enlist at least 100 artists to start creating inside. The three-story space will also boast conference rooms, lounges, an outdoor deck and gallery space, Kreate COO Daniel Freeman told Billy Penn.

The firm has experience with this kind of flip. A similar project launched last November in the Bronx neighborhood Mott Haven, where it was lauded by local artists as “a real opportunity” to keep young talent in the community.

After two years of renovation work, Philly’s version is set to open in mid-March.

Giving former educational institutions second lives has become somewhat common in Philadelphia, thanks to the dramatic rounds of school district budget-crunch closures that vacated a few dozen buildings.

There’s Bok, the South Philly high school redeveloped into a popular makers’ space with a rooftop bar and restaurant. In Germantown, the old high school is being re-envisioned by a developer who’s finally working with the community to decide its fate. Other former schools have found new lives as residential units.

Studios at Kreate Hub Philly will be relatively affordable, Freeman said, citing rents from $300 to $1,400 per month. By comparison, the container-based studios at Cherry Street Pier cost between $400 and $500.

The renovation of the 40,000-square-foot historic structure is a welcome development, said Kae Anderson, director of economic development for the New Kensington Community Development Corporation.

“More affordable spaces for artists to continue to move to the neighborhood — that’s something we’re always interested in,” Anderson said.

‘Anybody who needs an affordable place to work’

Making more affordable space for artists is basically Kreate’s mission, according to Freeman, the COO.

“Too often, artists are the first ones priced out of a neighborhood they helped build and define,” he said. “We think it’s imperative for artists and makers to have an affordable, dedicated space, committed to their growth.”

Freeman saw the need for more spaces in Philly develop first hand. Though he’s based in NYC, his grandparents were born and raised in Philadelphia, and he grew up helping them out in their women’s clothing store — called Freeman’s — on South Street back in the day.

Then, he recalls, South Street was sort of an HQ for creatives.

“It used to be an artists’ Mecca,” Freeman said. “Growing up there and seeing the flavor, the artistic expression that Philly had, it seemed natural that this would be the next step for us.”

Freeman and his NYC colleagues took the step 90 miles south two years ago, but the historic designation of the building — designed by renowned school architect Joseph Anschutz — made renovations costly and time-consuming.

Academic operations there likely ceased before the 1980s. After that, the nonprofit Community Women’s Education Project took over in 1989 — but fell apart by 2015 due to financial and leadership challenges.

It took so long to retrofit the building that Kreate started and finished their artists’ hub in the South Bronx before the Philly one had a chance to launch.

When it does open in March, the first floor will house a handful of shared studio spaces, divided by partitions. The second and third floors will have studios between 80 and 300 square feet. There’ll be no extra charge for utilities, and retail sales will be allowed, Freeman said.

To rent the space, artists need to commit to three months of rent payments. After that, it goes month to month, and they can leave anytime with 30 days’ notice.

“Anybody who needs an affordable place to work, they’re welcome here,” Freeman said. “This is a neat opportunity to really experience everything that the Philly arts scene can provide.”

NKCDC’s Anderson said in her seven years at the neighborhood nonprofit, Kensington’s appetite for artistic spaces has been insatiable. There’s no lack of warehouse-turned-studio spaces in the community — but she noted people always want more.

“It’s not something that’s absent by any means, but we really have a unique culture of art here in the Kensington neighborhood,” Anderson said.

“We’re excited to see a commercial use at that corner,” she continued. “And we’re happy to see they aren’t demolishing the building.”

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