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Irving T. Catharine, Philadelphia’s School Design Czar

The Joseph W. Catharine School, S.66th Street and Chester Avenue. October 26, 1937.

The buildings of Frank Furness and Louis Kahn are known world-wide. Yet below the architectural superstars were the work-a-day architects who made their livings designing prominent structures that still dot the city. These included department stores, theaters, police and fire stations, parish churches, and warehouse blocks.  These architects saw their business as a service, and made comfortable livings in good economic times, especially if they had a steady corporate, ecclesiastical, or public client.

Irwin Thornton Catharine (1884-1944) was one such architect.  His name might be forgotten, but during his career he was one of the city’s most prolific builders. Trained in architecture at the Drexel Institute, Catherine’s career received a strong boost in the education sphere due to (in typical Philadelphia fashion) a family connection: his father Joseph Catharine was the long-time chair of Philadelphia’s Board of Education.  Appointed to the position of Superintendent of Builing in 1923, the junior Catharine was now insulated from the economic uncertainty that plagued the architectural profession.  From 1918 to 1937, he supervised the construction of 104 new public schools within the Philadelphia city limits, oversaw additions to 26 old ones, and substantially renovated at least 50 others. Working within a limited but defined budget, Catharine’s work was both elegant and utilitarian. During the 1920s, Catharine’s studio produced buildings in a stripped-down collegiate Gothic style, blocky three or four-story structures punctuated by turrets, high arched windows, and a grand central entrance. By the 1930s, however, Catharine shifted to a more streamlined variant of the Art Deco style, popularly known as “Moderne”, at Bok High School and John Bartram High School, although he also toyed with Mediterreanean motifs at South Philadelphia’s Charles W. Bartlett Junior High School (now the Academy at Palumbo).

Charles W. Bartlett Junior High School, 11th and Catharine Streets, November 26, 1932.

In addition to soaring auditoriums, libraries, rooftop playgrounds, and gymnasiums, Catharine added a novel feature to public school buildings in the 1920s: indoor public bathrooms on each floor (replacing the outdoor latrines in many older school buildings), with marble partitions betwen the toilets.  In a 1925 newspaper interview, Catharine claims to have solved the pesky graffiti problem in school bathrooms:.”Once every [toilet] partition put up was wood; nowadays white marble is used,” he said. “And the children have been the direct cause of this. There is something in the nature of every boy which makes him want to carve his initial or whole name in a wall. If he isn’t clever enough with his pocket knife, he writes his name. White marble partitions and walls make it impossible for him to use his knife.”

Auditorium of the Joseph W. Catharine High School.

One of his last projects was a school at S.66th and Chester Avenue, named in honor of his father Joseph.

Irwin T. Catharine died in 1944.  After World War II, Philadelphia’s school designs veered away from Catharine’s brick and stone historicism and toward the the steel and concrete of the International style.

Sources: 

“Irvin T. Catharine,” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2020, https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/22844, accessed February 27, 2020.

“63-Prop, Philadelphia Public Schools Thematic Nomination,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form,” United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, October 20, 1986, https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/64000730_text, accessed February 27, 20202.

Philip Jablon, “Why All Philly Schools Look the Same,” Hidden City Philadelphia, June 29, 2012.

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