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When bad business management leads to demolition of a neighborhood icon — can it still be saved?

August 28, 2010

Photo by A. Palewski

Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

1123 Spring Garden Street

The distinctive, twin-spired gothic church you see at right has graced the skyline of Philadelphia since 1849.  A nonprofit agency purchased it, leaky roof and all, and proceeded to salvage the interior in preparation for demolition.

Demolition plans were halted when the church was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2009.

Pursuing demolition by neglect, property owner Siloam has made no effort to stabilize or maintain the church since then, and now claims it is a safety hazard.

Siloam has turned down several offers to buy the church (the most recent from a successful Philadelphia restaurateur) and will now plead an economic hardship case to the Philadelphia Historical Commission in order to finally pull the structure down.  The group’s lawyer claims the organization is “struggling for survival” and claims the issue of the church could put them out of business.

The issue has been referred to the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s Committee on Financial Hardship which will meet to make a decision regarding demolition on Wednesday, September 8 at City Hall, Room 578 at 1:00 pm.

Interested in buying a church?  Siloam is using Colliers International as its agent (though I was unable to find the property using their search feature on their several websites – Is it any wonder the UK-based company says it hasn’t received much interest in the Spring Garden property?)  Took me half an hour, but here’s the link for their local office partner.  Put in a bid and see what happens.

Interested in saving a church?  You can:

Write a letter/Make a call

Philadelphia Historical Commission City Hall, Room 576 Philadelphia, PA 19107

Telephone: 215.686.7660 Fax: 215.686.7674

Email:  Jon dot Farnham at phila dot gov

Attend the Wednesday, September 8 meeting @ 1:00 pm

Philadelphia City Hall, Room 578 (allow time to get through security line in the lobby)

Wondering about the bad management decisions that led to purchase of a site that so obviously required a significant investment whether they tore the building down or not (demolition is an expensive proposition itself)?  So am I.  With that kind of leadership running the place, it’s no wonder the lawyer says Siloam may have to go out of business.  And wouldn’t it be a shame if they tore down the church and then failed as an organization anyway?

Lend expertise

Siloam will present its case to the Committee on Financial Hardship — involving claims it can’t sell the property, estimates for demolition versus estimates for stabilization all pinned to an overview of how much money they have and their stated mission of providing social services.  When the Architectural Committee voted to refer the matter to the Hardship group, the sole dissenting vote (3-1) pointed to the need for an independent estimate for the costs involved for demolition or stabilization.  Are you an expert who could weigh in on the costs involved?  Leave a comment or contact me at the address in the sidebar (see the envelope?).

Most recent Article at PlanPhilly here.

2008 IRS form 990 for Siloam Ministries (check their financials and see if you’d make the same choices they did)

Nomination document here (Francis Drexel and his family worshipped at this church, and Katherine Drexel (St. Katharine Drexel) was baptized here on December 28, 1858)

For another slice of Spring Garden history long gone — 1104 Spring Garden Street during the Civil War

Photo by A. Palewski

BACKGROUND

The Church of the Assumption was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in May 2009.

Andrew Palewski, a neighborhood resident and preservationist who nominated the 1849 church for designation, presented a petition with more than 400 signatures from  neighbors.  Residents of the Callowhill and West Poplar neighborhoods testified about the church’s importance as a neighborhood landmark and its great potential as an icon for neighborhood revitalization. Architectural historian Michael Lewis, professor at Williams College, highlighted the church’s historic importance in the context of Irish immigration and anti-Catholic sentiment during the mid-19th century.  Designed by Patrick Charles Keely, a prominent 19th-century church architect, the Church of the Assumption is the oldest of his churches to survive, and was the first of his designs to feature twin spires, an effort to differentiate Catholic ecclesiastical architecture from Protestant.

The nomination was contested by its owner, the nonprofit Siloam, which provides mind/body/spirit services to people living with HIV/AIDs.  Siloam bought the deconsecrated church in 2006 and, after exploring options, had intended to demolish it.  A designated building cannot be demolished without permission from the Historical Commission.  Now, in 2010 Siloam has applied for permission to demolish the building under economic hardship.

HISTORY

This Gothic Revival church was built from 1848-1849 which makes it one of the early civic structures in the developing Spring Garden area of the city which was established as a neighborhood in the 1850s when developers began to build speculative housing for merchants and professionals.  By 1877, the neighborhood became a fashionable address for Philadelphia’s nouveau riches.  The Church of the Assumption was established at the inception of this neighborhood’s development and has lasted through a significant transition which has left it as one of the only original buildings on the 1100 block of Spring Garden Street.

Additionally, the Church of the Assumption holds great significance as the earliest extant example of the work of Irish-immigrant Patrick Charles Keely (1816-1896), who rose to prominence in the architectural field designing ecclesiastical buildings for the Catholic Church, primarily throughout the Northeastern United States.

At its essence historic preservation is about retaining the significant features that create and define a neighborhood. With its towering spires, gothic buttresses and tracery windows, the Church of the Assumption is a tangible link to the area’s history and represents a well-recognized landmark within the community.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. goose permalink
    August 28, 2010 3:44 pm

    nice work sabra!

  2. August 29, 2010 5:51 pm

    This post made me sad all-around, except for seeing a photo of a beautiful old building! That was worth all the bad news, including the threatened demolition (yes, bad choices on the part of the owner in many respects), the fact that this is one of the only original buildings on the block, and the apparent lack of understanding of urban design by past or current property owners to the left and the right.

    I wish you lots of luck, Sabra, in saving this building. All of us interested in preservation can think of many possible economic uses for this good-looking church.

  3. Kevin permalink
    May 31, 2011 10:23 am

    I used to look inside this churc in the early 2000,s back then it was beautiful and I didn’t understand why it wasn’t in use. Its a shame they salvaged the interior. Obviously the owner is ignorant of the building”s history.
    Its sad because with everything that has happened to it, it probably will come down sooner or later.

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