The Callowhill Neighborhood Association is appealing the demolition permit that was approved for the Church of the Assumption at 12th and Spring Garden Streets.
Earlier today, CNA filed for appeal to the Board of Licenses & Inspections Review in response to the permit issued by L&I last week. The permit clears demolition work as early as December 11.
CNA is already in the process of filing an appeal with the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court against an October ruling in the Court of Common Pleas to allow demolition.
“We believe that appeal should be allowed to be heard first,” said CNA President Sarah McEnearney. She added that her organization is also considering an injunction to block demolition while the appeals are pending.
MJ Central Investment, the firm of developer John Wei, acquired the church in July. The permit, however, lists CID Construction, a company located in Hunting Park and apparently contracted by MJ Investment to carry out the demolition. A representative for CID refused to answer questions for this story and Mr. Wei hasn’t returned a request for comment.
McEnearney said Wei had talked with CNA earlier in the year and heard them out on their wishes for adaptive reuse of the site.
“We were shocked and surprised when we found out,” she said of the demolition notice, noting that Wei has not been in recent contact with the group. “We really thought he was on board with us.”
Built in 1849, the Church of the Assumption is the work of the prolific architect Patrick C. Keely and the site where Katharine Drexel, a canonized saint, was baptized. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed the church in 1995, selling it to the HIV/AIDS wellness nonprofit Siloam in 2006.
The church was added to the city’s Register of Historic Places in 2009, mainly as a proactive measure against Siloam’s plans to tear it down. However, in 2010, the Historical Commission approved demolition on the basis of financial hardship. Sam Sherman, the Commission chair, cast the decisive vote breaking a 5-5 tie. After being challenged by CNA and overturned before the Board of L&I Review last year, the Court of Common Pleas reinstated the Historical Commission’s decision.
Andrew Palewski, who wrote up the nomination for the church to be listed on the historic register, told me on Monday that the rationale for granting the permit was not immediately clear. Since the church changed ownership in the middle of the case, he said the question was whether Wei needed to go before the Historical Commission again, or if the original ruling had remained with the church.
However, according to Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Historical Commission, the Commission turned to the City’s Law Department after its decision was upheld and received confirmation that the permit was valid for the property itself, not just the previous owner.
In its original ruling granting hardship and allowing demolition, the Historical Commission was convinced that adaptive reuse was not a feasible option. The test for the Commission when it ruled last year was two-fold: how valuable is the church on the open market and is it financially feasible for someone to renovate and use the available 8-9,000 square feet of space, while also restoring and maintaining the rest of the building, including its two tall towers? In both cases, the Commission ruled no–the neighborhood could not support high enough property values and even with available tax credits and subsidies, an owner could not feasibly adapt the building for a new use.
Significant for its place in immigrant life and Philadelphia’s Catholic history, the Church of the Assumption is only one of about 200 vulnerable churches citywide. According to Commission representatives we spoke to, Commission staff and members are “saddened” to see the city lose the church, with its brownstone and slender spires. But the Commission’s regulatory role as adjudicator of private property rights means it is legally compelled to enforce the judgment by the Common Pleas court and approve the demolition permit.
It is thus up to advocates and other community members to spearhead an appeal or seek an injunction.
The Irish-born Keely (1816-1896) was the architect of more than 600 churches in his lifetime and was particularly identified with the neo-Gothic style in North America. St. John the Baptist, a fixture in the Manayunk neighborhood skyline, was also Keely’s work.
Assumption isn’t alone among Keely’s works currently in danger of being lost. In October, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced plans to tear down St. James, located on the city’s south side. The church, which Keely designed in 1875, still has an active congregation, but was closed two years ago because of safety concerns. The application for demolition is currently under review by the City of Chicago.