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Gothic Ruins: A Last Glimpse Inside Northeast Manual Training High School

Northeast Manual Training High School, September 15, 1906.

The former Northeast Manual Training High School looks as if it had been plucked from the Princeton campus and dropped into the middle of North Philadelphia.  Constructed in 1903 at the intersection of North 8th Street and West Lehigh Avenue, the “Collegiate Gothic” building has walls of granite, traceried windows, and gargoyles sprouting from the central tower.  The auditorium boasted a magnificent pipe organ. This was not a school for the rich and privileged, but for the sons of working class Philadelphians.  The School Board believed that traditional beauty could be a form of uplift for the students, most of whom lived in tightly-packed, tree-less neighborhoods, befouled by smoke from the surrounding factories. Architect Lloyd Titus followed his client’s wishes, and created a dignified structure that loomed dreamily above the neighborhood’s squat rowhouses and warehouses.

It is an edifice built to last.  Over a century after its completion, there is not a crack in the foundations and walls are still plumb and level.

Yet on August 3, 2011, the school caught fire and the upper floors were completely burned out.  Nothing short of a total gut-renovation could make it fit for reuse.  The school, most recently known as the Julia DeBurgos Middle Magnet School, had been closed two years before the conflagration.  Because it was not properly sealed, the old school became a magnet for squatters, drug-addicts, and vandals, and quickly fell into ruin.  The four-alarm fire, possibly the result of arson, was the coup de grace.

Last Tuesday, I stood with demolition superintendent Devon Jackson in the groin-vaulted Gothic vestibule of the school’s auditorium, just as demolition started.   It was a dreary, gray day.  Rain spat through the vacant windows, and bright construction lights shone through the swirling dust.  Piles of rubble filled the courtyard. A few weeds still clung tenaciously to life, poking through the debris.

“The toughest part of the demolition is removing all the wood from the structure,” Devon explained.  It was not just in the floor planks and joists, but also buried behind plaster walls. Much of the wood that escaped the fire was either water-damaged or had succumbed to rot.

I asked Devon if it was OK for me to step into the auditorium.  It was a cavernous space, two stories high. The stage, surrounded by crumbling plaster moulding, still remained.  A tattered blue curtain shung from the proscenium. The seats had already been removed, the flooring material ripped up.  The pipe organ once stood behind the stage.

The pipe organ at Northeast Manual Training High School on December 18, 1934, damaged by fire.
Guion Bluford, a Philadelphia native and the first African-American astronaut, being honored on the auditorium stage, November 1983.

Eric Smith, Jackson’s supervisor at A.T. Russell Construction (the company in charge of demolishing the school), was alerted to the long-sealed organ shortly after demolition started, but by the time he arrived to photograph it, his workers had dismantled the instrument.  While wandering through the school, Smith saw pitiful reminders of the squatters who used the squalid structure as their home.  One illegal tenant had set up a suite of sorts, using a room for discarding his soiled clothes, one as a closet, and another as his bedroom.  Since the building had no working plumbing, he poked a hole in a chair and used it as a toilet.  Bottles he used for urination lay scattered around the space.

Taking down such a massive structure is no easy task, yet Smith predicts that his team of about 20 men will demolish it in a mere three months.  The first task is to gut the interior and salvage anything of value. Unusable wood components will be shredded into mulch, and sheetrock pulverized into gypsum fertilizer. The 10-inch veneer of exterior granite, as well as the gargoyles, cornices, and window tracery, will be sold to architectural salvage dealers, who have found a brisk market for such elegant pieces of history.  Men wielding sledgehammers and a swinging wrecking ball will then knock down the brick-and-masonry structural walls.

Smith knows he has a job to do and that economically the building is probably beyond saving.  Yet he still regrets its destruction.  “It’s a shame to see a building like that torn down,” he said. “You take a school hat’s been around for 110 years and then replace it with a Save-A-Lot, Burger King or a sneaker store. Change is necessary, but it would be nice if there was a better way to preserve structures like that. Even if you tried to save a portion of the building and preserve the history of the site.”

Note: to read Ken Finkel’s 2011 post about the former Northeast Manual Training (Thomas Edison) High School, click here.

To about read Steven Ujifusa’s May visit to the William S. Shoemaker Middle School in West Philadelphia, click here.


The burned-out shell of the former Northeast Manual Training High School. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
Stair tower. The railing have been removed. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.


The rubble-filled courtyard. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
Auditorium vestibule, with plaster groin vaults. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
Exterior bas-relief above the south entrance to the high school, part of an Art Deco addition. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
Auditorium. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.
Gothic buttresses and windows. Photograph by Steven B. Ujifusa.

Behind the Scenes Featured on NBC Philadelphia!

Last week, we had the chance to give NBC Philadelphia a tour of the photo collection at the City Archives and a peek into the research we completed this past spring on augmented reality. Check out the embedded video below to learn more or watch the segment over on the NBC10 site!

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Behind the Scenes

Getting Meta with Metadata

Metadata. This rather ambiguous term is the skeleton underneath every image on Metadata is how we know when and where a photograph was taken. It is how we know who took the photograph and, to some extent, why they took it. Without metadata, searching for photographs of Independence Hall or your grandmother’s house would be nearly impossible. But what is metadata?!

Metadata is essentially “data about data,” meaning information about any type of “data” – whether it’s a letter, a photograph, a painting, or even a piece of furniture. Metadata can range from the time and date something was created to who created it and even the reason behind its creation. At its core, metadata allows us to describe an object and, in the case of databases like, use that description to locate one item out of thousands. When you enter a book’s title and author into a library catalog, you’re using metadata to find the specific book you want to read. Similarly, when you search for a photograph taken at a specific location, that location and any other information about the photograph is metadata.

Each image on is connected to an administrative page where members of the PhillyHistory team can enter metadata information.

Before we upload a new photograph to, we first create a database record, known as an “asset,” that details as much information as possible about the image. For the majority of the photographs in our collections, this includes a title, description, photographer name, location, and date, as well as the photograph’s record group and negative number. By and large, this information is taken from the original envelope containing the negative or from a log book kept by the photographers as shown here.

A photographer's logbook provides metadata for many of the historic images.

When entering metadata into a new record, we follow certain standards, commonly known within the archival community as “best practices.” Perhaps the cardinal rule of metadata is that all information must be entered as it appears in the original historical record. In our case, this means entering each title as the photographer recorded it in the log book or on the original envelope, even if the title is as general as “Houses, Stores, Etc.” In these instances, users or one of the members of the PhillyHistory team often recognize a building or a house and suggest a better title for the photograph, but, according to the rules of metadata, we can’t change the title. Instead, additional details from a user or one of our archivists are entered in the “Notes” field. In a record, the “Notes” field is our chance to add anything the photographer forgot or to correct something that is wrong or misleading. One common correction involves location, as the location the photographer recorded is sometimes not the one pictured in the photograph but rather the location from which the photograph was taken. In these cases, we title the photograph just as the photographer did, “Northeast Corner of 12th and Market Streets” for example, but leave a note about the difference between the photographer’s location and the location pictured in the photograph.

One other fun fact about metadata – if a photographer misspelled a street name, best practices tells us to enter the street name as the photographer recorded it, followed by the correct spelling in brackets. In the archival world, brackets indicate a change or addition to the original historical record and are peppered throughout the records on In this way, metadata is also about translating records that someone wrote fifty or a hundred years ago, an endeavor almost as challenging as understanding metadata!

Managing metadata in an archive comes with all sorts of additional and complex issues. For more information beyond this brief introduction, visit the following links.

“Metadata Resources” – Compiled by the Minnesota State Archives.

“Metadata Standards/ About” – Compiled by the Princeton University Library.

“Understanding Metadata” – Published by the National Information Standards Organization Press in 2004.

“Getting Meta with Metadata” is the second article in “Behind the Scenes at,” a new series of blog entries that will provide insights into the activities that go into creating

Behind the Scenes

Oh Where Can This Be?: Photos Without a Location

When we enter new photographs into the database, we include as much information as possible about an image from the date and photographer’s name to the location. Without a doubt, location is one of the most important parts of our photo collections as many of the historic images depict street scenes and the exterior of buildings. Whenever possible, we try to geocode (assign latitude and longitude coordinates) to an image. We can geocode a photo by identifying an address, street intersection, or place name (such as City Hall) or by selecting a point on a map. The software behind will take this information and calculate the latitude and longitude coordinates associated with that spot. Once a photo has been geocoded, users can search for and find the image based on its geographic criteria. The geographic location of a photo is crucial as users search for images by address or neighborhood more than keyword or any other search criteria. If a photo has an identified location, users also can download it to Google Earth or compare the historical images with the present-day Google Street View.

However, what we know about a photo depends upon what information the photographer left behind. Sometimes, we unfortunately have little or no knowledge of where a photo was taken. Photographs of bridges, railroads, and creeks are among the most challenging to locate since the photographer’s terminology is frequently too broad or too narrow for our purposes. In some instances, photographers used surveying markers to describe their location, but unfortunately “North from Station 109+70” can’t tell us exactly where a photo is located along the Frankford Creek. Alternately, some locations were recorded in very basic terms. In these cases, tracking down an address often requires some ingenuity and super sleuthing, along with a little help from our friends.

So how do we do it? Here’s an example using a image taken on March 27, 1898.

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos

The title, “Broad Street Bridge,” places the photo at any number of locations along Broad Street. When the title and the description provided by the photographer prove vague or indefinite, we turn to the photo for more details. Fortunately, the photo itself provides a few clues; we can see that this was a railroad bridge and there is a sign on the right-hand side building that reads “Gas And…” Following these leads, I turned to the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network (, a pilot project of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries and now led by the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

Among other resources, the GeoHistory Network provides digitized copies of historical maps and atlases from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with an awesome interactive maps viewer that allows users to zoom in on a location and compare the historic map with the current street grid. To find a location for this photo, I used the 1910 Philadelphia Atlas by G.W. Bromley. Following North Broad Street from City Hall, I found the old Philadelphia and Reading Railroad freight yard at North Broad and Callowhill Streets, which seemed like a good candidate for this photo’s location. To confirm my suspicions, I scanned the map area, which lists business names on the building outlines, and found the Horn and Brannen Gas and Electric Fixtures Factory at the next intersection – North Broad and Noble Streets. This matched the “Gas And…” sign visible on the right-hand side of the photo and, to make my final determination, I zoomed in on a high resolution copy of the image. Not only was the full factory name visible, but the building on the left-hand side turned out to be the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which was also visible on the map. Satisfied with my findings, I geocoded this photo to North Broad and Callowhill Streets and set the Street View to look north toward the intersection of Broad and Noble Streets.

Often, the maps from the GeoHistory Network are an invaluable resource in our efforts to locate photos; additionally, we also rely on the knowledge of our users who can submit comments and error reports for any photo on As the story of this one photo shows, sometimes all it takes is a keen eye, a bit of research, and a little luck to solve the mystery of photos without a location.

“Oh Where Can This Be?” is the first article in “Behind the Scenes at,” a new series of blog entries that will provide insights into the activities that go into creating