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Researcher works with ghosts of history to save Lower Dublin Academy

A Revolutionary-era schoolhouse in an unexpected location has been nominated to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places by an unlikely researcher.

Lower Dublin Academy, built in 1803, is surrounded by an apartment complex, just barely visible beyond the trees and overgrowth at Academy and Willits Roads in Northeast Philadelphia, near the entrance ramp to I-95.

Lead author on the nomination is Joe Menkevich, who worked for more than 20 years as a welder at the Budd manufacturing plant on Red Lion Road, then on a street crew for the Philadelphia Water Department, and as a home repairman before discovering a passion for historic research after retiring on disability.

This will be the Lower Dublin Academy’s second go-round before the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which rejected a nomination submitted by another local historian in 2014. That nomination, at about 25 pages, was found to be incomplete in its early review.

The new nomination, which will be heard by the PHC’s Committee on Historic Designation on Sept. 14, is considerably longer at 108 pages, and includes a history of the building site, archival images, 19th-century news clippings, aerial views, biographies of the builder and related historical figures, numerous photos – including the building’s resident vulture perched on the roof – and a brief summary of the murder that occurred there in 1990. It is a deep immersion into the tale of Lower Dublin Academy and all that came before and after. 

Ghosts of the past

Joe Menkevich’s interest in historic preservation began in the 1990s when he moved into the Northwood neighborhood on Castor Avenue, which borders Greenwood Cemetery.

A building on the cemetery grounds had been the home of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a member of the Second Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Though the cemetery had been previously listed on the Philadelphia Register, the company that owned the grounds was granted permission by the city to raze the Rush house and erect a crematorium. The local civic association fought to save the house, but Philadelphia Common Pleas Court upheld the city’s decision.

Menkevich joined the local fight to preserve the house, searching land records and historic ties to the building and site. “I was the researcher; I didn’t even know I had that skill,” he said.

“I visited the cemetery, and I almost felt like the dead people were talking to me. Then the records seemed to fall into my hands – like it was meant to be. Like a Stephen King novel, right?”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of the local group’s appeal to save the historic Rush house, which has been restored and is now operated by the Cancer Treatment Center of America.

Menkevich has since worked on the successful nominations of the Byberry African-American Burial Ground, the 1874 David Wilmot Public School, and the Garsed-Bromley Mansion to the Philadelphia Register.

He also continued his research into other sites around Northwood, including a one-time gunpowder mill on the Frankford Creek. “After a while, you just start reading everything. It leads to Benjamin Rush, and then, all of a sudden, you’re reading about Ben Franklin and the Founding Fathers.

“And all of these people become your friends, they become very personal to you. You almost know them, like your neighbors. They may not be here today, but their ghosts are sort of still walking on the streets,” Menkevich continued.

“You have to visit these places and walk the same steps they walked. That’s how I do history.”

Built by the in-crowd

Among the friends from the past Menkevich made during his research into Philadelphia history is Edward Duffield, a maker of watches, compasses and surveying instruments, as well as an engraver, friend to Ben Franklin and David Rittenhouse, and member of the American Philosophical Society. “You name it, he was involved in it. He was in with in-crowd during the Revolution,” Menkevich said.

    • Lower Dublin Academy, 1938 | Department of Records, PhillyHistory.org
      Lower Dublin Academy, 1938 | Department of Records, PhillyHistory.org

Duffield organized a group of 12 veterans of the Revolutionary War who raised the money through a lottery to found a new school, the Lower Dublin Academy, named for the township at that time. In 1803, Duffield was the designer/builder of the two-story, schist fieldstone structure that replaced an 18th-century log schoolhouse that had been on the site.

Menkevich’s nomination describes the building as a Federal-style design and similar in architectural significance to historically designated resources including Box Grove Mansion in Holmesburg and Upsala in Germantown.

The land itself had been deeded to Thomas Holme by William Penn as partial payment to Holme for his work as surveyor-general and his street plan for the city of Philadelphia.

The Academy was intended to board and educate “young gentlemen” in the “usual branches of a polite education” and prepare them for business or college.

The Philadelphia Board of Education purchased the school building in 1901 and renamed it the Thomas Holme School, according to news accounts in the nomination, which also describe huge July 4th celebrations at the site through the early part of the 20th century.

In the 1940s, the building was renovated into a private residence and was owned by the Roedell family for nearly 50 years. In March 1990, Dr. George Roedell, under pressure from his family to sell the building, got into an argument and shot his 32-year-old daughter, Karen.

When Roedell was jailed, his wife sold the house and surrounding property to a developer, who built the neighboring residential units, the Courtyard of Thomas Holme. The former schoolhouse was purchased by attorney Richard Gutman and his partner, who had planned to turn the building into their law offices.

Historian Fred Moore said his earlier nomination might have lacked enough information about the architectural significance of Lower Dublin Academy. The Northeast section of Philadelphia does not have as high a concentration of historical resources with architectural importance as Center City, he said, and the PHC may need to be “a little more lenient.”

In any case, Moore said the new nomination “packs a lot of information in there, and it’s very valuable.”

In the new nomination submitted in June, Menkevich names 11 co-authors, including Moore and Bruce M. Connor, who launched the effort to save Lower Dublin Academy but died in a car crash in 2011.

Making it right again

Menkevich first visited Lower Dublin Academy in June 2006, partly as a researcher and partly as an entrepreneur. With funds that had grown through inheritance and investment, he envisioned turning the stone building into a brewpub.

A month after that first visit, a fire inside the building damaged the interior and roof. But Menkevich visited Gutman to ask the owner how much he wanted for the property. “He told me he’d already put over a million dollars into it, and I didn’t have that kind of money.”

Gutman, who said he has the deed tracing the property to King Charles II, has owned the building for more than 20 years. He and his former law partner had planned to leave the exterior alone and spent $1.3 million to rehab the interior. “It was a beautiful structure, with a 50-foot atrium going up to the attic,” he said.

When the partnership ended, neither lawyer had a need for the building.

The 2006 fire caused extensive damage inside and “it has been sitting there ever since.”

Gutman said he has no plans to demolish the building. “I hope someone has the eye and the funds to restore it. It’s certainly worth saving by the right person. I have no interest in putting more money into it."

According to Menkevich, the fire damage was superficial and the only real threat to the building is vandalism or another fire. He estimates repairs at $500,000 “to make it right again.”

“It doesn’t have to be a brewpub. It could be a catering hall, a coffee house, a jazz club, a library,” he said.

Since its disuse and the fire, Lower Dublin Academy has been on the radar of the local preservation community, landing on the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s 2008 endangered properties list. In 2011 there was hope that the academy would again hold classes, when a group tried to raise money to purchase the property and turn it into a learning center for autistic individuals.

“I’m hoping this nomination will get some people interested – maybe a developer who’ll say, I can fix that place.”


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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