25 Story Tower Proposed For 38th and Chestnut

 

Image: BLT Architects

(note: this article updated from the original)
In a case that could set precedent, the Episcopal Cathedral Chapter–center of the Philadelphia diocese–is making a complicated claim of acting in the “public interest” in its request to the historical commission to tear down two buildings on the Philadelphia register of historic places in order to build a 25 story apartment tower at 38th and Chestnut adjacent to the Cathedral and International House of Philadelphia. The request was made last Wednesday.

Siting reports from the Partnership for Sacred Places and engineering and construction firms, the Cathedral’s plan is to complete a $3-4 million (or more) renovation of the Cathedral itself (originally the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Savior, built in 1889 and rebuilt after a fire, in 1906) to be completed as part of the construction of the retail and apartment tower. The church’s argument is that the Cathedral’s preservation, more pressing than originally thought, is too expensive given the church’s current budget. The only answer, according to Church officials, is to develop church-owned property, creating a sustainable stream of revenue. This, they say, will benefit the public interest by saving a major landmark.

The question before the Historical Commission’s architectural committee (to meet next Tuesday) is whether to grant the claim and allow the demolition of the church’s 1903, 4 story brownstone Parrish House (both the church and Parrish House were designed by noted ecclesiastical architect Charles M. Burns). The Historical Commission will also have to decide to allow a contemporary glass entrance addition to the Cathedral. Preliminary applications suggest that BLT Architects will design the tower.

Image: BLT Architects

The Cathedral has previously provoked controversy with aggressive remodeling of the church’s interior in 2001, following a plan pushed by the former head of the church, the Very Reverend Richard Giles. That renovation, designed by architect George Yu, substantially altered the interior. It was decried by Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron and other architectural observers. (We link to an LA Times article on the controversy HERE.)

The Cathedral has chosen Radnor Property Group, with substantial experience in preservation and mixed-use projects, to develop the tower. It’s unclear from public documents if the project has been financed. However, a building permit has been filed.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-founder of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (with Peter Woodall and Joseph E.B. Elliott) and two novels, Everything is Borrowed and Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of Who Will Speak for America, an anthology forthcoming in June 2018, and the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



16 Comments


  1. The fire that destroyed the original church was not in 1906. The actual date was April 16, 1902.

  2. The historical commission really needs to step up on it’s efforts to protect the city’s ecclesiastical structures. Their stance on the Church of the Assumption was unacceptable. If it weren’t for local neighborhood groups, Assumption would probably have been lost. In fact, I really cant remember the last structure the HC protected from demolition.

  3. Also, I compared the above renderings with google street view. It actually appears that 3 or 4 historical structures would be demolished, if this proposal were to move forward.

  4. really disgraceful what is happening in Philadelphia, little regard for the past & preserving beautiful historically significant structures. Always preferable, in my humble opinion, to adapt/ remodel for other uses if possible, rather than erecting another ugly, modernistic structure affordable to only a few. Does Philadelphia really need t “New York feeling?” I think not.
    Many love Philly because it’s not NEW YORK. If we wanted New York, we would move there.

    I understand that the land is “gold”. CHANGE, CHANGE, CHANGE. Look at the ugliness w/ that Robert A.M. Stern-designed building on 18th Street. NEW & IMPROVED?? I think not !!

    • But, as the article says, adapting and remodeling are exactly what this project is supposed to do. The church itself is apparently not in such hot shape. They need several million dollars to save it, and since the land itself is the church’s greatest asset, the only way to raise those kinds of funds might be to give up some other, peripheral church properties.

      As nice as the rowhouses are, the church is a more significant landmark: the diocese itself and historic preservationists should be on the same page on this. The issue is whether the diocese is correct when it says that this course of action is the only one that will save the church.

  5. It is sad when anyone wants to tear anything down to build anew, when this town is pockmarked with empty lots. It seems like the diocese could buy one as near as a block away, tax-free and dirt cheap, and use the still-substantial earnings to shore up their finances. Or someone could donate it for the same purpose.

    Most of the land being built on, however, is a small park right now, and not an especially nice one. If the land cannot be put to its highest-valued use without sacrificing a couple of buildings that are already ecclesiastical property, then I think we should at least be glad that something is being built.

    • THe diocese already owns this property and had been planning to build there for many years. The church is not in bad condition at all and has been extensively renovated in the recent decades – it’s the fact that they cannot add a handicapped entrance without seriously destroying the historic structure plus the need of the diocese for new offices (their current offices in the historic Wistar house on 4th Street needs work) and they would prefer to save the money by building a new building and in this case one that would provide income.

  6. NickFromGermantown

    I don’t know. This is a good building and while the old ones are indeed worth saving, this could be a nice trade-off. And part of this land is vacant anyway, so…

  7. I don’t think I can leave the statement about Inga Safrron not liking Richard Giles’ renovations as if that were the last word. I had an email exchange with her about that, and it turned out that she liked the mystery of old, dark, dim churches and cathedrals. But Richard’s vision was different. He wanted churches to tell us something about God–to show forth the light of God, and to be inviting. I felt that at the least she should have done him the courtesy of considering what he had done on his own terms. I knew that church when it was a very dark and rather cramped and crowded-with-pews Victorian structure, and what it is now–which is a much lighter and more open building in which one can see the bones of aniquity in its columsn and stonework–but in which one can also breathe and move about, and listen to the water flowing in the baptismal pool. To me it looks far more ancient now then it did in its Victorian heyday. I have been there many times when people have come in the door who have never seen it before, and actually gasped at its beauty.

    I love old churches too–but I thought Richard realized his vision magnificently, and to fail to see that at ALL is a failure, in my view, of one’s own artisic vision.

    So I am not afraid of what change may be wrought in building this office building–especially if it is a financial imperative, which I am sure it is. I am sure what comes will be lovely.

  8. That would be “antiquity” and “columns”.

  9. I can’t begin to analyze this tradeoff until I have a reason to believe that tower will actually ever actually get built. What reason is there to think this won’t play out as innumerable other such trade-offs have, where good buildings are torn down and replaced by parking lots? Unless financing is in place, it seems more appropriate to think of this as a trade-off between 4 historically significant buildings and a big, empty lot.

  10. Nathan has it exactly right. Show us some proof that this will actually be built before we bring the wrecking balls in.

  11. The problem with the whole “demolish in order to preserve notion” is that in the long run historical preservation ultimately loses. If this trend continues, for every historical property that is “restored”, two, three, or or four would be demolished. That’s not necessarily a good track record. Basically, a demolished building of historical value is an unmitigated loss for historical preservation.

    The current empty lot appears to be large enough to accommodate a scaled down version of the proposed building. However, there are still a lot of details, which need to be presented in order for this project to be taken seriously. Has financing been secured? Are these the final plans? (It seems a little unusual that a building of that scale and height would be proposed for that particular location and by the diocese, none the less). Have the plans even been approved? Is the church really in poor condition? Until these questions can be answered, the proposal seems like a pipe dream.

  12. The diocesan website has no mention at all of this proposal FWIW

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