Funded through FDR’s Public Works Administration, the building was built in 1936 to accommodate 3,000 students from across Philadelphia studying subjects from wallpapering to cosmetology to auto mechanics to bricklaying. Formally known as the Bok Vocational High School, the building opened to students in 1938. Many of the classrooms were purpose-built to accommodate trade-specific study — like the steel rooms built for welding materials that exist inside many of the spaces. Or the first floor rear of the building that was an auto mechanic shop, or the 3rd floor full kitchen built to train students in culinary arts.
Decreased enrollment in its later years and escalating deferred maintenance challenged the building. In 2013, the School District of Philadelphia closed the school and put it up for public auction. At the time of closure, the school had under 1,000 students enrolled. The building was one of over 20 schools put up for public auction by the District that year. Unfortunately this follows a narrative playing out across the country - in Chicago over 55 school buildings were put up for sale and in Detroit over 120 school closed around this time.
Although there were some cosmetic changes over the 75 year history, the building remains unchanged.
BOK is owned and operated by Scout, a multi-disciplinary design and development firm with a background in transforming vacant and underutilized spaces in creative ways. In 2014, Scout submitted a proposal to reuse the existing infrastructure within the building to create affordable work space for a wide variety of different users. The approach matches tenants with spaces that can accommodate their needs, while offering amenity and economic opportunity to the neighborhood. It is a phased long-term construction project that seeks to continually improve and repair the building.
Scout’s light-touch approach to renovation seeks to respect and repair the building’s found condition and reuse as much as possible. In the rear of the building, the old tool library has been transformed into a coffee shop. The former Le Bok Fin culinary training kitchen provides infrastructure for a local catering company. Wood-shop classrooms with high electrical capacity have been utilized by tenants in need of extra power.
Bok’s first three tenants were a haberdasher, a textile designer and a jewelry designer; all three lived in the neighborhood and had outgrown their rowhome work spaces. Today the 340,000 square foot structure houses close to 150 businesses, artists, makers, entrepreneurs, and non-profits — ranging from fashion designers to filmmakers to glassblowers to architect practices to woodworkers, and even a wholesale bakery. Bok is also home to a daycare, a hair salon, ESL classes, a tattoo parlor, a coffee shop, a butcher shop, a kombucha producer and an award-winning rooftop bar.