Find A Political Solution On Church Of The Assumption

 

Nativist Riots, 1844

Smelting plants, coal smoke, ink black, steam explosions, homicidal train engineers, gun fights, race riots, religious wars–the neighborhood was so grim that even Edgar Allan Poe couldn’t take it anymore. Then, a few years later, on Spring Garden Street rose the slim, knife-sharp towers of the Catholic Church of Assumption–a delight to the beleaguered eye and (for some) the darkened spirit of bloody Jacksonian urban America.

Poe’s friend the leftist writer George Lippard certainly noticed. This was a district of workers, Lippard’s people (he lived not far away), and though he hated religion, he sought out Catholics subjugated and pushed around by Know Nothing Nativist protestants to co-lead his workers union.

This was Philadelphia having lost its political and financial standing cast into its own dark ages until technology, concentrating capital, and war would reaffirm its raison d’etre.

Out of the darkness came this strange architectural and composition, at once heavy and light, harsh and beautiful. It still towers over the neighborhood like rabbit ears on top of the old RCA, sending some kind of electric signal to the heavens above.

Church of the Assumption looking north | Photo: Andrew Palewski

Now the battle is being lost to save those ecclesiastic rabbit ears; we’ll all lose without them. In a city desperate for reasons to look up and wonder, we ought not sacrifice this door to another urban planet on the altar of legal-political helplessness. Certainly the legal appeal to the Commonwealth Court being sought by the advocates for the church will not be heard before the demolition is scheduled to begin. Certainly, the property owner who knowingly and willingly purchased a property that was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and therefore nominally protected from demolition will swing his lead balls the second he is able (legally midnight next Monday night because he has been granted the same hardship absolution granted the previous owner though he himself has never had to prove any kind of hardship). Certainly, the regulatory bodies of the city will sing in unison, “there is nothing we can do.”

In Manhattan, a church designed by the same architect, Patrick Charles Keely, was rescued from the wrecking ball because a judge issued an injunction a day into demolition, in 2006. Then, as the appeals continued apace, the Archdiocese of New York, which still owned the church, did not continue with demolition, even after the State Supreme Court (a lower court in New York) threw out the injunction. It waited, probably in part due to public pressure, until a year later the church was rescued by a donor.

Well, public pressure is political pressure and though the Archdiocese of Philadelphia gave up on the church long ago, the present owner, Mr. Wei, ought to be forced to be subject to it (political pressure is exerted constantly on the Historical Commission, which is forced to take it on as part of the cost of doing business).

At his first mayoral inauguration, Michael Nutter famously posed the rhetorical question, “what kind of city do we want to be?” Perhaps this is one of those times we answer. Do we want to be a city that allows a piece of its heritage of incalculable intrinsic value slip through our fingers on legal technicality (that hardship is a condition of a building and not an owner, a policy precedent that potentially means preservation is for rich neighborhoods, where buildings contain higher market values, only), or do we want to be the kind of city that summons collective will to find another solution? Mr. Wei, who hasn’t ever been forced to disclose his plans for the site post-demolition, needs to be given reasons to hold off the wrecking ball and allow the appeal process to go through. And if eventually a court rules on behalf of protecting the church then the city should buy it, lock it up, and wait. In five years with massive investment about to occur in the neighborhood–with Spring Garden Street in the center of it–we’ll be kicking ourselves for robbing our own bright future of a lightening bolt from another time.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is also senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine.



6 Comments


  1. Speaking of a lightning bolt! thanks to Harry Harry Kyriakodis… http://www.scribd.com/doc/46039160/Franklin-s-Philadelphia-Experiment

  2. This is exactly right.

  3. What a graceful building. I didn’t know you could legally demolish a bldg. listed on the Register of Historic Places!! Is there really a possibility that the city could buy it? It certainly could become a focal point of renovation of the neighborhood…

  4. Considering that the Ruffin Nichols Memorial AME church was demolished a few months ago, if Assumption meets the wrecking ball Callowhill would have lost all of it’s spires within a few short months.

    I feel so helpless in all of this. Is there anything I could do to help?

Trackbacks

  1. Philly Painting critique | Mobilizing against Church of the Assumption demo | North Central gets parking minimums | RBA to design Spring Garden Connector | City seed savers
  2. Lunchtime Quick Hits | Philadelphia Real Estate Blog
  3. L & I Review Board Issues Stay Of Demolition For Assumption | Hidden City Philadelphia
Recent Posts
Historical Commission Hardship Meeting Puts Sloan Mansion One Step Closer To Demolition

Historical Commission Hardship Meeting Puts Sloan Mansion One Step Closer To Demolition

December 19, 2014  |  Buzz

The days might be numbered for the Samuel Sloan-designed John P. Levy House at 40th and Pine. Today the Historical Commission's Hardship Committee approved a recommendation that could clear the way for the Italliante mansion's demolition > more

Travels Through The Ghost City

Travels Through The Ghost City

December 19, 2014  |  Last Light

The wrecking ball and the crane seem to be the symbols of the year as Philadelphia's built landscape changes--in some places at a furious pace. Architect Andrew Evans has been paying attention--his time-lapse images capture the process as the new replaces the old > more

Baking Yuletide Cheer At Potito's

Baking Yuletide Cheer At Potito’s

December 19, 2014  |  Last Light

There is nothing like lining up to buy baked goods in South Philly during the holidays. Theresa Stigale has this photo essay about Potito's, a classic, family-owned neighborhood bakery at 16th and Ritner > more

Temple Police Treading An Expanded Beat These Days

Temple Police Treading An Expanded Beat These Days

December 18, 2014  |  Morning Blend

North Philly university moves to protect its off-campus students from violent crime, DVRPC approves I-95 capping study, Nightingale Properties to rebrand Seven Penn Center, and a “Little Farm” expands in South Kensington > more

With Churches Fast Disappearing In Fishtown, A Chance To See What's At Stake

With Churches Fast Disappearing In Fishtown, A Chance To See What’s At Stake

December 18, 2014  |  News

What to do with all the churches? With the imminent loss of another Fishtown church, New Kensington Community Development Corporation wants you to see what's at stake--join them for a post-holiday tour. Michael Bixler reports > more

Transforming The Schuylkill

Transforming The Schuylkill

December 17, 2014  |  Morning Blend

A re-bridging of sorts for the Central Schuylkill, good news for South Philly ship, Liberty Square work begins, and the lax enforcement of condos’ Christmas tree ban > more