The abandoned George R. Pepper Middle School in Philadelphia, named for Republican Senator George R. Pepper, a Philadelphia lawyer considered one of the legends of the Philadelphia bar, was first proposed as part of an educational campus including the new Eastwick High School. It was hoped that both buildings would alleviate overcrowding at Tilden Middle School and Bartram High School. Construction was cut from the budget in 1969 but in 1970 plans moved forward again and the groundbreaking ceremony for Pepper took place.
The Pepper School, which was expected to cost $18 million and serve 1500 students along with Eastwick High, was not universally welcomed by the community either. The projected goal of opening the school in 1973 failed to materialize, in part due to building issues and leaks in the construction. Plans for Eastwick High School were axed, but this necessitated adding a gymnasium, auditorium, central administration, and library to George R. Pepper Middle School. The school finally opened in 1976.
Problems with both the construction and location of the school plagued Pepper from the start. In 1981 the school was closed to fix issues with the heating system, and in 1986 the school district pressed a lawsuit against the bonding company, architecture firm, and inspection firm responsible for the school’s construction over defects in the school’s electrical systems, as the electrical contractors were defunct. Alleging shoddy work and extensive code violations that could endanger staff and students including improperly grounded or ungrounded wiring and inadequate circuit breakers, the district asked for $750,000 to repair them.
Of all the flaws in the school’s planning, none were as severe as its placement. Located two feet below sea level, Pepper sits in a flood zone, and when Hurricane Floyd hit the area in 1999, the damage was severe. The George R. Pepper Middle School was flooded by nearly 18 feet of water, which left the basement entirely submerged and the first floor with two feet of flooding. The flooding badly damaged the boiler room, cafeteria, and computer labs, and destroyed musical instruments and art equipment, causing over $1 million worth of damage. Even worse, the sewage backed up into the building, necessitating a time-consuming and costly cleanup effort. The school was closed for a month and the incident earned it the nickname “The Pepper Bowl”.
In the following years the school created a number of programs to benefit its dwindling student population: it created the Pepper Pride garden on the property, and trips were arranged to the nearby John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Enrollment numbers were down, however, and a program to gradually decommission the school by closing a grade each year was scrapped in favor of a full closure in 2013. The 413 remaining students were transferred back to Tilden Middle School.
There is still disagreement over what should be done with Pepper. Though some residents want to see the area reused as a trade school, one must question if the building’s location and the extensive damage to the interior make that a feasible goal. A 2018 study recommended demolition in favor of a commercial corridor on the spot but issues of flooding would still remain. Other residents want the area used for flood mitigation, not development. Until its fate is decided, the George R. Pepper Middle School remains, contentious until the very end.
Matthew Christopher PA Sharon Hill May 05, 2022 Abandoned Places Architecture