Deal Reached On Development At Episcopal Cathedral


Image: BLT Architects

Image: BLT Architects

In what appears to be a proactive move by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, a deal has been reached to guarantee the long-term preservation of the Episcopal Cathedral on 38th Street in West Philadelphia.

The deal, formed by the Cathedral, the Preservation Alliance, and the Radnor Property group, will allow Radnor to build a residential tower on 38th and Chestnut. The Preservation Alliance will withdraw its opposition to the approved demolition of two historically registered brownstones on the church’s property that will make way for the tower.

Proceeds from the development of the tower will fund the continued preservation of the Cathedral, the center of the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia, which was designed by prolific architect Samuel Sloan and enlarged later after a 1902 fire by Philadelphia architect Charles M. Burns.

The decision to make the agreement comes not without controversy. “Although the Alliance recognizes the good intentions of the Historical Commission in reaching its decision, it has serious reservations about the Commission’s interpretation of the law and the procedures followed in this case,” said Preservation Alliance board chair Marian A. Kornilowicz. “Nonetheless, the Alliance concluded that an appropriate settlement would be in the best interest of all parties and we were able to accomplish that. This agreement includes a detailed 50-year plan or program for the preservation and restoration of the Cathedral building as well as the commitment by the Cathedral to the Cathedral Building itself, to implementing the preservation plan, and to funding the plan including all necessary work and maintenance. It also contains a mechanism for the funding including the payment into escrow of $2.1 million to cover the immediate work and the generation of approximately $1.3 million through operations and/or financing for future work.”

Image: BLT Architects

Image: BLT Architects

The agreement reduces the possibility of a lengthy legal appeal of the Historical Commission’s decision to allow demolition of the brownstones for reasons of “public interest.”

It also means the tower, to be designed by BLT Architects, will be the fourth major residential tower to be planned in West Philadelphia. There is concern that the design of the tower, as Hidden City pointed out last June, live up to the architectural significance of the Cathedral and the urban potential of the major intersection of 38th and Chestnut.

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 senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.


  1. While I’m a little saddened by the loss of the two brownstones , this is a good deal . The preservation of the cathedral and moneys set aside for just that are fantastic . Hopefully other developers will take note . That
    structures future is no longer in doubt . Perhaps when other individuals want to tear down historic structures
    they can be convinced to preserve the history and as a reward be given several mty lots to more than compensate any financial hardship. Everyone’s a winner than.

  2. Good news on the whole. If only BLT weren’t the project architects I might feel sanguine about it.

    • I don’t think the cathedral’s future was ever really in doubt. The only “win”, if you can call it a win at all, preservationists got was a promise of investment towards the Cathedral’s preservation over the next 50 years. However, I doubt it of this commitment would be contingent if the property happens to be sold at some point. Furthermore, I still find it odd how institutions like UPenn and the Archdiocese can claim “financial hardship”, or how the HC defines “public interest.” The demolition of these brownstones reveals the fact that any historically registered structures can be demolished based on arbitrary claims. Unfortunately, they will probably just be the first of many to meet the wrecking ball because of this.

      • Thats what is screwed up about this city and country as a whole, the fact things which are bureaucratic technicalities, things clearly dishonest and against the spirit of the law and what is correct, in a word things that are bullshit, are given a pass because, well, its all legal and nobody wants to fight the army of lawyers. We all know it is absolute BS that something like UPenn or the Archdiocese make the claim of “financial hardship” as they rack in million a year and maintain opulent structures while building more. Or that the NEW BUYER of assumption be allowed a demolition permit for financial hardship, when financial hardship stipulates the property is unsellable, when it was just sold.

        Well all know is bureaucracy and that it is all a corrupt and absurd process which spits in the face of common sense and couldn’t be bothered with that is right and wrong. Its all what is legal, which is to say, what they can get away with.

  3. Personally, I’d rather they tear down the cathedral and keep the brownstones. While there are plenty of middling Romanesque churches in Philly, there are very few surviving West Philly brownstone rowhouses, thanks to Penn and Drexel.

    • Yes, but most Church’s in Philadelphia aren’t also one of the few building remaining in the city from a nationally renowned architect.

      There are a good amount of brownstones surviving in West Philadelphia, just not in University City.

      • We have plenty of churches (and houses of worship) in the area designed by nationally-reknown architects, many of them rare examples. I think claiming Samuel Sloan to be “nationally renown is really really overstating the case.

        And having grown up in West Philly, I’m honestly curious to know where all the borwnstone townhouses are.

        The point I was trying to make is that before the redevelopment of the area in the 1950s and 60s, University City looked much like Rittenhouse Square, and that these two townhouses are about the only survivors which illustrate that fact.

        • Samuel Sloan’s book, “The Model Architect”, essentially served a guide for home design and layout for the next 50 years following its publication. Samuel Sloan was also almost certainly the most important asylum architect of the 18th century. He built many buildings not only in Philadelphia and the surrounding area but also across the country. He is a very under-appreciated Philadelphia architect given his importance and fame during his life.

          I got your point, and it is a shame that the area was all demolished by the growth of university city. West Philadelphia is in many places architecturally gorgeous yet almost always overlooked. I know I have pased brownstones in Powelton Village and in the Squirrel Hill area as well as by Fairmount Park in Overbrook.

          Dont get me wrong, I would rather they keep the brownstones and the church.

          • I guess this is pedantic, but few of the buildings in West Philly you both refer to are in fact – brownstone – rather many are brick faced, stone faced or even stucco faced frame structures.

            The use of the term “brownstone” seems to have crept down from Manhattan where the larger number of row homes appear to have been faced with brownstone. Generally in Philadelphia they seem to be row houses, single houses or twins and are sometimes called townhouses, which is more accurate than brownstones.

  4. The parish and Diocese have been a poor stewards of the their history and this plan is just more of the same. Ten years ago, they virtually destroyed the interior of the building (which was considered one of the greatest Victorian church interiors in the country) and now they are tearing down the rectory. Pretty pathetic but typical for the Episcopal Church which seems to enjoy tearing itself apart.

  5. That is going to be one dark Cathedral! They just blocked a majority of their southern light into the building.

    As an Episcopalian here in the city, I can tell you this church has no importance or significance for me. It’s not really big enough to be a Cathedral… if we had wanted one of those it should have been built on the Parkway and to a much grander scale.

    That being said, we finally no longer have our abysmal former Bishop Bennison. Let’s hope our Diocese heads in a new more fruitful direction and that there is a greater good that comes out of this project. The lot there now was never ideal.


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