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
Coda For Mayor Street’s NTI

Coda For Mayor Street’s NTI

March 5, 2015  |  Morning Blend

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority considers the last budget for the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, Squilla seeks rezoning of mill in Kensington, can Philly become a video game mecca, and entertaining thoughts of a Business Improvement District for the Italian Market > more

Peering Ahead To A New Festival Pier

Peering Ahead To A New Festival Pier

March 4, 2015  |  Morning Blend

What the DRWC’s redevelopment of Festival Pier would entail, Streets Commission considers ways to fund rebuilding of 78 retaining walls, creative infill in Poplar, and PMA to bring art to East Passyunk > more

On Front Street, A Warehouse With A Sacred Past Seeks Salvation

On Front Street, A Warehouse With A Sacred Past Seeks Salvation

March 4, 2015  |  Vantage

Kensington was once home to generations of Presbyterians and their houses of worship peppered the neighborhood. One of the denomination's oldest surviving churches in the area was just put up for sale after being used as a building supply warehouse since the 1950s. Oscar Beisert digs deep into the former lives of Second Associate Presbyterian and unearths a strong case for preservation > more

Claiming Fraud, Owner Of Metropolitan Opera House Seeks To Dissolve Ties To Eric Blumenfeld

Claiming Fraud, Owner Of Metropolitan Opera House Seeks To Dissolve Ties To Eric Blumenfeld

March 3, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Church group says developer misrepresented himself, a transatlantic discussion for the Lehigh Viaduct’s reuse, Maxfield Tower completed in Fairmount, and nearly 4 million PA residents at risk in event of “bomb train” derailment > more

The Costs Of Selling Schools

The Costs Of Selling Schools

March 2, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Why the City only sees two-thirds of profits from selling its inventory of vacant schools, a call for subsidized transportation for students, funding ready for South Philly art installation, urban poverty as everyone’s problem, and Council Districts’ most dangerous intersections > more

The Toughest Little Hut In Logan Square

The Toughest Little Hut In Logan Square

March 2, 2015  |  The Shadow Knows

Development of the lot at 20th and Arch has been cursed since the Kahn Building was demolished in 1929, only 8 years after its construction. Ironically, an easy to miss, colorful little Gulf Oil station has survived at the spot for 85 years--long enough to be placed on the Philadelphia Register. The Shadow serves up a big slice of history on this heartening little hut > more