This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The already massive Central High School is expanding by 45,000 square feet with a new $42 million performing arts center, kickstarted with a $10 million donation by a prominent graduate.
The design for the two-story addition was done by MGA Partners, a local architecture firm. Plans call for the addition to hold a 400-seat theater, a STEM innovation center, a digital media and technology center, and common areas. It will be located on the north lawn, near the corner of Ogontz and Olney Avenues.
More than 40 percent of Central’s 2,370 students participate in performing arts. Groundbreaking is set for January 2019, with completion expected in 2020.
Joseph Field, the lead benefactor and a Central High School 1949 alum (192nd class), began the funding drive with his donation. Additional money raised by the Associated Alumni of Central High School will be matched by Field. Also, the School District kicked in $8 million for site development.
“They have wonderful performing arts organizations, choirs, orchestra, band, all the rest of that, but they don’t have the right facility to express that and get the best out of it,” said Fields, founder of Entercom Communications Corp., the second biggest radio operator in the country. “That’s why I thought what they need most is this performing arts building, and I am happy to have suggested it and to help with the planning of the facility.”
The District’s portion will come from the capital improvements budget to address the school’s exterior and structural repair needs. Central High School was among the schools listed for repairs via the capital improvement program.
Superintendent William Hite said that tying Central’s planned repairs to the new performing arts center was “a way to be focused and intentional about the upgrades at the school.”
“It would’ve been work we had to do with Central, regardless,” said Hite. “But it’s nice to have that work aligned to a broader campaign to construct something very special for the young people.”
Central High School was chartered in 1838 and graduated its first class in 1842, making it one of the oldest high schools in the country. Its notable alumni include Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes Scholar, and Noam Chomsky, esteemed philosopher and political activist.
Dylan Lewis, the president of the choir, said she is excited about the new space because when singing in the auditorium “it’s difficult to hear us.” And with the new space, she said, “you’ll really be able to hear students’ voices.”