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Inga Saffron on Church of the Assumption

October 1, 2010

from today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, this article by the paper’s architecture critic Inga Saffron.  Don’t miss the photo gallery by staff photographer Akira Suwa showing the fine gothic detailing of the 19th century church, including stained glass windows and tracery in the interior.

Changing Skyline: Historic Church of the Assumption needs buyer, not wrecking ball

By Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Maybe it’s the Mad Men-crazed moment we’re in, but I’m starting to find inspiration in advertisements. My current favorite is one from Patek Philippe, a watch so frightfully expensive, it gets to call itself a timepiece. Beneath a soft-focus photograph of a handsome father beaming at his young son, the copy tells us, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”

I like the ad’s suggestion that things that take skill to create ought to be cherished and protected. It’s a nice corrective to the throwaway mentality that dominates our culture these days.

The watch ad’s words came back to me last month as I listened to a nonprofit group make a pitch to the Philadelphia Historical Commission for permission to tear down the landmark Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street. Designed in 1848 by Patrick Charles Keely, the Roman Catholic sanctuary played a role in the lives of two Philadelphia saints, John Neumann and Katharine Drexel. The delicate, copper-clad points of its Gothic Revival spires serve as a compass across North Philadelphia. Yet the familiar landmark is being written off by a group that has owned it all of four years.

Not that there aren’t extenuating circumstances. The nonprofit, Siloam, is a largely volunteer group that provides free medical care to poor people with AIDS. Only a hard heart would insist that Siloam tap its meager budget to care instead for the magnificent, but needy, church. Accepting the arguments, the Historical Commission approved a hardship waiver Sept. 9, allowing Siloam to tear down the burdensome property.

Granted, Siloam was able to make a credible case for financial hardship – unlike the prior owner, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which virtually dragooned the nonprofit into buying its surplus real estate. But is demolition really a logical way to deal with this unfortunate situation? It hardly seems like the response we want from a city agency charged with protecting Philadelphia’s historic inventory.

The decision is being appealed by the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, which got the church certified as historic in the first place. The group believes that Siloam viewed demolition as a first resort, and never made a serious effort to sell the distinctive ochre-colored church to someone who could afford the repairs.

Since the commission’s vote, at least two developers have approached Siloam about buying the property. Although both are well-known in the neighborhood, neither had been contacted before by Siloam’s Realtor, Colliers International.

“I know I was never called, and I’m the logical buyer,” said developer Bart Blatstein, who recently bought the nearby State Office Building, at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, with the intention of converting it to apartments.

After reaching out to Siloam, Blatstein said, he found “a lot of confusion” among the leadership and decided not to pursue a bid. That’s a shame because he could easily afford the $1.5 million that Siloam estimates is necessary to stabilize the spires. (The other developer was not identified.)

Blatstein is right about being a logical buyer. He spent much of the last decade helping revive Northern Liberties, the neighborhood a few blocks east of the church. Things may be a bit slow right now, but when the real estate market comes back, he intends to move west along Spring Garden Street, filling in the gap between Northern Liberties and Broad Street. Just a 10-minute walk from City Hall, the area is already viewed as the next hot neighborhood.

And the Church of the Assumption stands smack in the middle.

While cynics might assume developers would welcome a cleared site between 11th and 12th Streets, sophisticated builders see things in more nuanced terms. New construction takes root more easily in areas where existing architecture provides context and texture. Not only is the Church of the Assumption the oldest building on Spring Garden Street, but it is also one of the few survivors of character on the boulevard’s tattered eastern flank.

When the market does rebound, Spring Garden Street will be a crucial connector between two of the city’s biggest redevelopment zones: the Delaware waterfront and the stretch of Broad Street south of Temple University. While it may not be clear now how the Church of the Assumption might be reused, similar religious buildings have been converted to concert halls, antiques markets, offices, even apartments.

Because it is historic, the church’s owner would qualify for tax credits, a common means of financing construction. So, by hastening the church’s demolition, the Historical Commission compromises Philadelphia’s future while it sabotages an important piece of its Catholic past.

Several commission members tried to make that argument last month. Joan Schlotterbeck, who runs the city’s public property division, urged her fellow members to delay the hardship vote for at least six months to allow time to find a buyer. As Siloam’s Realtor testified, the church has been on the market for only a matter of months. It’s hard enough to sell a rowhouse in such a short time, never mind a huge church with structural issues.

Even a political insider like Wayne Spilove said he was taken aback by the finality of the commission’s decision. “The church should have been mothballed until the right use comes along,” argued Spilove, a developer and preservationist who chairs the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

In a letter Monday to Siloam’s director, Joseph Lukach, Spilove warned that the state commission would oppose the group’s plans to use state grant money to demolish the historic property. The group is so strapped, it says it can’t pay for demolition itself.

And if it finds money from another source, what happens to the church’s equally beautiful convent and rectory? Neither enjoys the protection of historic status. Siloam was so eager last year to get started on the demolition that it started tearing out the marble cladding from the columns and removed the pews.

Before the archdiocese dumped the church into Siloam’s lap, it made sure to salvage the fount where Drexel was baptized. Today is the 10th anniversary of her canonization. One wonders whether her home church will still be around for the next generation of Catholics to appreciate.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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