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Inga Saffron on Church of the Assumption

September 11, 2010

Photo by A. Palewski

Philly.com, September 11, 2010

Historic Philadelphia church to be torn down

By Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

The Philadelphia Historical Commission cleared the way Friday for the demolition of a landmark Spring Garden Street church whose 15-story twin spires are visible across much of North Philadelphia, and whose sanctuary nurtured the city’s two most notable Roman Catholic saints, John Neumann and Katharine Drexel.

The commission, which placed the ochre-colored Church of the Assumption on its historic register only last year, agreed to allow the demolition after its nonprofit owner testified that it was financially incapable of making crucial repairs to the green copper steeples. The 6-5 vote marked the latest defeat in Philadelphia’s struggle to retain its stock of spectacular, but underused, 19th-century religious buildings.

The decision came after hours of testimony, and after neighborhood residents and preservationists – including several city officials – pleaded with the commission to spare the historic sanctuary. Built by the noted church architect Patrick Charles Keely, the Church of the Assumption was consecrated by Bishop Neumann in 1848. Drexel was baptized there a decade later.

“Are we really ready to destroy a building that has such a profound history?” Commissioner David Schaff wondered aloud just before the vote.

Schaff, who represents the Planning Department on the commission, noted that the church was the oldest surviving building on Spring Garden, a once-grand boulevard that has been severely battered on its eastern flank. With the real estate market in the doldrums, many predict the large site, just east of 12th Street, could linger as an empty lot for years.

Despite those concerns, the building’s owner, the nonprofit Siloam, which provides free services to people with HIV/AIDS, argued that its own survival could be in jeopardy if it were forced to preserve the church and make costly repairs that could require more than $1.5 million.

Demolition of historically certified properties is generally forbidden in Philadelphia unless the owner can prove financial hardship.

Siloam director Joseph Lukach testified that his group spent months trying to find a new use for the church or a buyer to take it off its hands. When those efforts failed, he said, the board concluded that demolition was its only option.

The irony is that Siloam is now in such bad financial straits that it may have trouble finding money to raze the soaring church, Lukach said. Although Siloam said that demolition would cost $164,000, several commissioners familiar with construction prices predicted the bill would be triple that. Siloam said it would request state money to cover the expense, just as it sought state money to buy the property.

Lukach conceded in his testimony that it had never been Siloam’s intention to take on the responsibility of being a property owner. The group had been renting space in the rectory in 2006 when the Catholic archdiocese announced plans to dispose of the church compound.

“The church said, ‘Take it or leave,’ ” Lukach testified.

Initially, the group was optimistic that it could incorporate the ornate Gothic Revival sanctuary into its programs. But it soon discovered that the roof and two steeples would first need extensive repairs.

Siloam sought help from two volunteer design consultants, Community Design Collaborative and Partners for Sacred Places, but was unable to carry out their recommendations.

Andrew Palewski, the preservationist who nominated the church for landmark status, contended that the nonprofit never had the wherewithal to make use of the church’s sprawling compound, which includes a convent, school, rectory, and two empty lots. “They let the convent sit idle when it was ripe for redevelopment,” he complained Friday.

Kevin Boyle, a lawyer who handles the archdiocese’s real estate matters, countered that Siloam was seen as the last, best hope for saving the church. Boyle also represented Siloam at Friday’s hardship hearing.

“The church puts tremendous resources into saving historic properties,” Boyle said in defense of the archdiocese. “But at the end of the day, you can’t save every building.”

Not all the commission members agreed that the church’s fate was hopeless. Noting the poor state of the real estate market, Commissioner Joan Schlotterbeck, who runs the city’s public property division, urged her fellow members to postpone the demolition vote for six months.

When the commission deadlocked, 5-5, on the issue, Chairman Sam Sherman, who normally does not vote, cast the deciding ballot in support of demolition. Sherman, a developer, recently completed a hugely successful market-rate rowhouse project just two blocks north of the church.

“I thought it might come to this, and I was up all night thinking about it,” Sherman said ruefully. “The demolition of this church is not in my mind a good thing. But I do feel hardship has been demonstrated.”

The Church of the Assumption is unlikely to be the last great religious building Philadelphia loses.

According to testimony yesterday from Siloam’s Realtor, James J. Scott of Collier International, there are at least 20 religious buildings for sale in Philadelphia. “It can take two or three years to find a buyer,” he said, that is, “assuming they’re in move-in condition.”

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