One of the best things about studying in a city like Philadelphia – full of promise and problems – is that you can make a difference even as you’re figuring out how to navigate the world. For students of preservation, the city holds surprises and potential projects around every corner. There are more potential historic landmarks and districts than you can shake a stick at, complex and ambitious policies to absorb the most ardent scholar, and a balance of development and demolition pressure that requires careful navigation – and a steep learning curve.

In the last six months, Penn students have made the news for their work to draw attention to a mid-century police station and to highlight and restore an 1876 arch designed by luminous local architect Frank Furness, who also designed the Fine Arts Library on campus. The arch restoration grew out of a conservation class report, while the Police Administration Building “Roundhouse” campaign was the focus of a second-year studio project.

The challenge with service-learning is to translate worthwhile class projects into on-the-ground projects and community causes that outlast the semester. Working with a community partner – the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, with the Furness arch – and building broader community support, as with the Roundhouse, are steps toward that type of sustainability. And the projects – beyond their ostensible subject matter – offer students key lessons in the importance of involving allies and building relationships. Without these political skills and follow-through moxie, preservation advocates will be limited to short-lived campaigns rather than a broader movement.

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