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Look Up! Moderne and Machine Age schools survive closing lists

    • Dobbins Vocational School was built in 1936 in the Art Deco style by Irwin T. Catharine.
      Dobbins Vocational School was built in 1936 in the Art Deco style by Irwin T. Catharine.
    • Deco carvings adorn the front section of Dobbins on Lehigh Avenue.
      Deco carvings adorn the front section of Dobbins on Lehigh Avenue.
    • The Dobbins school is a mammoth landmark in the North Philadelphia community.
      The Dobbins school is a mammoth landmark in the North Philadelphia community.
    • Elaborate Art Deco designs are scrawled into the school building piers.
      Elaborate Art Deco designs are scrawled into the school building piers.
    • Sayre High School is a strong example of the Machine Age architecture of the 1940s.
      Sayre High School is a strong example of the Machine Age architecture of the 1940s.
    • Streamlined fins emerge from Sayre's facade on Walnut Street.
      Streamlined fins emerge from Sayre's facade on Walnut Street.
    • Sayre's tower resembles a cruise ship's smokestack.
      Sayre's tower resembles a cruise ship's smokestack.
    • The entrance to Sayre incorporates mid-century line and curves.
      The entrance to Sayre incorporates mid-century line and curves.
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“Look Up!” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. The photo essays focus on different Philadelphia areas and their distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.


The recent waves of public school closing announcements have spared a pair of very active and attractive high school buildings. Both reflect the optimistic, forward-thinking attitudes of early to mid-century architecture, and their features are still inspiring in the early 21st century.


The Murrell Dobbins Vocational School, 2150 West Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia, is a bulwark of Art Deco confidence. The mammoth structure was designed by public school architect Irwin T. Catharine and erected in 1936. It was among the 158 school buildings placed in a special thematic district on the National Register of Historic Places in the late 1980s. 


The nomination form describes a six-story, 15-register brick and stone  building, with a central section of seven stories with nine registers. Terra cotta trimmings highlight the top and the piers that separate the registers. Carved stone panels in the Deco style adorn the central openings, and fluted pilasters separate the registers on the front façade. Overall, the building is “a landmark within its community and represents a major work of the Art Deco/Art Moderne styles,” the nomination form states.


The William H. Sayre High School, 5800 Walnut Street, is a striking example of Machine Age architecture and looks like a streamlined cruise ship that docked permanently in West Philadelphia. Sayre was constructed in 1949, too late for the National Register district; which covered buildings from 1818 to 1938. 


Sayre was built by Howell Lewis Shay & Associates, a firm with a long, distinguished history in the Philadelphia area. Shay practiced with Horace Trumbauer before starting his own firm. His portfolio includes work on the U.S. Customs House, the Packard Building, the Drake Hotel, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


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Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.




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"Look Up: and check out Spruce Hill
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About the author

Alan Jaffe, Contributor

Alan Jaffe has been a contributing writer for PlanPhilly since 2008, focusing on overlooked buidlings and historic preservation issues. He was a writer and editor in the newspaper industry for nearly 30 years, including eight at the Philadelphia Inquirer and nine at the South Jersey Courier-Post. He is currently the director of communications for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He is also an antiques writer and collector and the author of “J. Chein & Co.: A Collector’s Guide to an American Toymaker.”

ajaffe@planphilly.com



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