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the secret life of buildings

The Secret Life of Buildings: Edward W. Bok Technical High School

Named after Edward W. Bok, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and editor of Ladies Home Journal, the Bok building is an innovative maker space for artists in the city but it wasn’t always like this. Bok Technical High School, at 1901 S. 9th Street, was designed by Irwin T. Catharine and officially opened in 1938 as part of President Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration. At that time, its classrooms were filled with first-generation Americans, many of whom spoke Italian, Polish, German, or Yiddish at home.

The Bok Technical High School basketball team, 1943.
Image: Philadelphia Record photograph morgue at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

History 

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a demographic shift as families left the City for the suburbs and the Bok building welcomed an influx of Black, Hispanic, and Asian students, offering training that assured employment upon graduation in a wide variety of fields, including lucrative union jobs. Students learned bricklaying, plastering, plumbing, welding, and machine building. Others mastered tailoring, hairdressing, and culinary arts. In later years students had access to an in-house TV studio and computer.

Image: 1959 Yearbook for BOK Vocational Technical Highschool. Image: Classmates.com

By 2013, the Bok’s fate was uncertain. Built to accommodate 3,000 students, its enrollment had dropped to just 1,000. This decrease in enrollment was a problem throughout the Philadelphia School System which resulted in the Bok building and 20 other schools being put up for auction. The eight-story limestone Art Deco building could have sadly been demolished. However, thanks to the vision and foresight of Scout, a small development and design firm focused on adaptive reuse, the historic building was repurposed, converting classrooms into affordable art studios in the heart of South Philly.

The space that had been formerly used as a vocational school was re-born and re-branded by an influx of small business owners, creatives, and their families. After a very minor renovation, the Bok building was ready to be filled with artists, craftsmen, fashion designers, jewelers, wellness services, and even eateries.

From Vocational Highschool to Maker Space

Early tenants included Lobo Mau, a slow-fashion design studio specializing in small runs of unique hand prints known for its commitment to sustainability and social responsibility. Founded by siblings, Jordan and Nicole Haddad, Lobo Mau (which means Big Bad Wolf in Portuguese) uses “dead stock,” to reduce textile waste and keep them out of landfills. They also use 100% organic cotton. Their fashions are for women and men of all sizes and shapes. Until recently, Lobo Mau had a flagship boutique at 6th & Bainbridge, but when that location had to close in June 2024, their retail business returned to their design studio at the Bok building. So, yes, you can shop while seeing textile printing and design in action.

Remark Glass, a sustainable business focused on glass reuse occupies the building’s basement. Founded in 2016 by three glass artists, Remark Glass doesn’t just recycle glass, they repurpose it. In their studio, Danielle Ruttenberg, Rebecca Davies, and Mark Ellis, turn bottles into light fixtures, barware, dinnerware, and decorative bowls.

Another Bok tenant is Stover Ceramics, where Megan Stover creates wheel-thrown, hand-carved bowls, serving plates, mugs, and eye-catching pieces you will not find anywhere else. Since 2015, Stover has been crafting her wares at the Bok, while continuing her affiliation with the Clay Studio and teaching ceramic at the Abington Art Center.

Megan Stover, owner of Stover Ceramics, working on a design. Image: Stover Ceramics

Vintage clothing and homegoods addicts will want to stop by Noni which also has a location at 760 S 4th on Fabric Row. They are committed to offering size-accessible curated vintage and retro clothing in sizes 6X-XS, alongside a selection of vintage homewares, as well as books, art prints, accessories, vinyl records, kids’ toys, and much more.

These are just three of the Bok’s 200 businesses, fifty-two percent of which are owned by women. For a complete listing visit the Bok Directory. But don’t just come to shop. Come to eat! On the first floor, Machine Shop Pastries serves up the flakiest Parisian croissants and pastries on this side of the Seine. Grab a cup of java at Two Persons Coffee and have lunch at Miles Table or take the elevator to the eighth floor where Irwin’s Upstairs offers modern Sicilian fare and natural wines with a dazzling skyline view of the City. The Bok Bar frequently hosts events like Sunset Drag Shows, Country Line Dancing with a DJ, a Salsa Night, and more. There is also a daycare, hair salon, and tattoo parlor in the building.

Free weekly tours of the Bok are available every Wednesday at 5pm at the Dudley Street entrance. No need to pre-register. What a fun way to get to know the Bok before enjoying Happy Hour on the rooftop! 

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