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

Nathaniel Popkin is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including the forthcoming Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple Press) and a novel, Lion and Leopard (The Head and the Hand Press). He is the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



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

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Without Remediation, Diamond In The Rough A Risky Play

Without Remediation, Diamond In The Rough A Risky Play

September 22, 2017  |  Vantage

How safe is safe enough? Environmental researcher Coryn Wolk explores the potential public health risks at a youth baseball field built on top of an industrial alloy production site surrounded by an oil refining complex > more

Wayne Junction Moves Forward With Revitalization

Wayne Junction Moves Forward With Revitalization

September 20, 2017  |  News

Developer Ken Weinstein unveils transit-oriented development plans for Wayne Junction district. GroJLart has the story > more

Inside Northeast Philly's Temple Of Ryerss

Inside Northeast Philly’s Temple Of Ryerss

September 19, 2017  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Harry K. takes us on a fall field trip to the Ryerss Mansion, an eccentric, little-known house museum in the Great Northeast > more

Unlisted Philadelphia: Locust Theatre

Unlisted Philadelphia: Locust Theatre

September 14, 2017  |  Unlisted Philadelphia

Ben Leech spotlights unique and significant buildings not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places with his architectural illustration series, Unlisted Philadelphia. In this installment, a marvelous movie house in West Philly > more

Monument Lab: A City-Wide Art Museum That Asks Us To

Monument Lab: A City-Wide Art Museum That Asks Us To “Leave Fingerprints”

September 13, 2017  |  Vantage

We ought to write our own history, say the organizers of Monument Lab, who launch their multi-week public art and civic introspection festival today in the wake of Charlottesville, Dallas, and Durham. Nathaniel Popkin catches up with Monument Lab founder Paul Farber, who asks us all, "What is an appropriate monument for Philadelphia today?" > more

An Original Keeps It Classy On Chestnut Street

An Original Keeps It Classy On Chestnut Street

September 12, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

From furniture and furnace manufacturing to a 1980s video arcade, 1606 Chestnut Street has kept busy for 127 years. The Shadow has the details on this Center City standout > more