Assumption Arguments Tomorrow In Commonwealth Court

October 9, 2013 | by Christopher Mote


Circa-1847 Church of the Assumption's interior, photographed circa-2013 | Photo: Bradley Maule

Circa-1848 Church of the Assumption’s interior, photographed circa-2013 | Photo: Bradley Maule

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania will hear oral arguments in the case of the former Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary tomorrow, Thursday, October 10th. The hearing for the Callowhill Neighborhood Association’s appeal of the historic church’s demolition approval will take place in Courtroom 1 of the Widener Building at 1339 Chestnut Street.

Significant disrepair | Photo: Bradley Maule

Extremely beautiful, but in disrepair | Photo: Bradley Maule

The court, which convenes in Philadelphia three times a year, is hearing arguments for some 45 cases this week. The Assumption case is one of seven scheduled to be heard by a three-judge panel in Courtroom 1 during Thursday’s session, which begins at 9:30 a.m.

CNA, represented by Samuel Stretton, is appealing the Court of Common Pleas’ decision to uphold the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s hardship ruling, which would have allowed then-owner Siloam, a social services agency, to demolish the church. The church’s ownership changed hands before the Common Pleas decision, and the new owner, John Wei’s MJ Central Investment, was granted a demolition permit after the reinstatement of the Historical Commission’s ruling.

However, Stretton’s eleventh hour motion to the Board of L&I Review for a stay of demolition was successful, and has continued, pending the resolution of the case in Commonwealth Court. The board had previously reversed the Historical Commission’s demolition approval for Siloam, which was later reinstated on appeal to Common Pleas. This time around, the board effectively determined that the hardship ruling–as well as the legal appeal of its validity–had transferred to the new owner.

Thus, one key question the court will address is whether the case is now moot, as Siloam has chosen not to participate, while the present owner has not intervened in the appeal.

Some stained glass remains, but large portions are missing, exposing the towers' interiors to the elements | Photo: Bradley Maule

Some stained glass remains, but large portions are missing, exposing the towers’ interiors to the elements | Photo: Bradley Maule

The City of Philadelphia, represented by solicitor Andrew Ross, is expected to argue in defense of the Historical Commission’s original demolition approval, which it holds to be subject to the property and not the ownership.

Although not yet able to tear down the church, MJ Central Investment has subdivided the property at 12th and Spring Garden Streets for redevelopment. Construction of a five-unit residential building broke ground in September at the northwest corner of the property, which had formerly been an empty lot.

CNA is arguing that the Historical Commission erred in finding that the church could not be reasonably adapted for any use. The civic group further claims that the sale of the church last year demonstrates that the property has market value and thus fails the hardship test.


About the Author

Christopher Mote Christopher Mote covers stories of preservation, planning, zoning and development. He lives in South Philadelphia and has a special fondness for brownstone churches and mansard roofs.


  1. Davis says:

    The stained glass that is “missing” was sold off as is typical after an archdiocesan church is closed.

  2. Anthony Zul says:

    This is terrible. This structure can be saved, and even turned over into Civic use…

  3. James says:

    CNA has no funds to purchase and renovate the property. They are infringing upon someone’s right to purchase, demo and build what is needed. Samuel Stretton has no money himself to invest into this scheme to purchase and renovate a building that will have no functional use once completed. City of Philadelphia BLIR has no legal standing to stall demo work.

    Most likely response by Commonwealth Court will be to dismiss this appeal and allow demo to proceed.

    1. Mary says:

      Can someone tell me the last time the Historical Commission denied permission to demolish an historic structure? Does anyone have any idea what percentage of requests to demolish were granted over the last, say, five years or so? Just wondering.

    2. Alex says:

      Thats a rather cold and clinical response. Can you at least express some sentiment over what is being lost here? Geesh…

      The legaities surrounding the preservation status and the proceedings leading up to the case are a little more complicated than you are making it out to be. If the CNA’s claims weren’t legitimate, the L&I would never have granted the stay of demolion in the first place. Besides, there isn’t a state or city where property owners have the complete freedom to develop and build whatever they want.

      Whether or not the Church eventually meets the wrecking ball, it would be a significant architectural, aesthetic and historical loss for the Callowhill neighborhood.

      Just hope that Wei realizes that whatever he decides to build on the site will be be met with a vengeful resistance from the CNA.

  4. Dave says:

    CNA has got to be the worst civic association in the city. How much of its budget has it squandered on legal expenses to preserve a church that has no adaptice reuse of any value? It seems to me that CNA’s fight with Wei is about its desire to preserve white privilege in a neighborhood with a growing Asian presence.

    1. Soldat says:

      Or it is about preventing a developer who knowingly bought a historic building (with a neighborhood fighting to preserve it) from tearing it down to line their own pockets at the expense of this cities historic integrity.

      Wei can go screw himself with all the other bottom feeders developers in the city who care about nothing but their own profits.

  5. Matt Grubel says:

    To clarify:
    At the time of the church’s purchase by MJ Central, approval for demolition had been been overturned by the L&I Review Board. The previous owner, Siloam, had appealed to Common Pleas, but no decision had been issued.

    It was weeks later when Judge Fox (Court of Common Pleas) reversed the L&I Review Board’s decision. Callowhill then filed an appeal to Commonwealth Court. Argueably, Fox should have ruled that sale to MJ Central made the case moot, proved the L&I Review Board right, or both.

    Months later, MJ Central applied for a demolition permit. Under the circumstances, the the permit should have not been approved administratively. For one, approving a permit before the Courts have made a decision places the City in a position of liability. For another, the City’s preservation laws require the Owner to show hardship. Therefore the new owner should have presented his hardship before the Commissioners.

    According to Mr Wei of MJ Central, he applied for the demo permit at the time he did because he could not get work permits for the new project on another parcel on the property. According to Wei, this was because L&I records indicated the church was not being maintained. If MJ Central has now started work on his rowhouse project as the above article indicates, then that explanation no longer has merit (assuming it ever did).

    PS. Everyone may be entitled to their opinions, but the comments about the CNA could be considered slanderous. There is no need to guess or wonder. Anyone familiar with the history and facts of the case can see that the accusations can not be true.

  6. Curator of Shit says:

    No adaptive reuse value? Build what is needed? And what exactly is needed, more high priced apartments or is it low income housing? There are how many vacant lots in this town? and the only option for development is to demolish a beautiful 19th century architectural landmark for more apartments? Philadelphia has one of the most incredible, architecturally distinctive built environments in this country and people prefer to defend a “development freedom” that is only based on the bottom line with zero respect for the local environment. This is also thanks to L&I and modern building codes, which don’t account for anything but NEW (and green, lol). Protecting these landmarks is essential to fostering the most interesting and desirable city possible. And while I know everyone hates the “white man,” let’s not forget that it was the hard work of the nineteenth century Philadelphians, allot of whom were white men, who created and enlarged this city at its most prosperous time. And as for blame, we’d like to submit a special thank you to the former “absentee landlord” of an owner for the impeccable maintenance they did on the property.

  7. ToshiFuni says:

    Three years later (2016) and all the comments from 2013 and all the internet activism, and really nothing to show for it from any of the commenters who have a comment about what others should do. Here’s one more armchair activist with a comment: How about CNA, instead of paying lawyers, do some fund raising to help whoever the owner is to bring the building up to present code requirements in life safety and human habitation. Instead of suing the owner, give a helping hand to the owner to help the community. Is this insane?

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