Demolition work is imminent on the former parish house of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral at 38th and Chestnut Streets. Two brownstone row houses will be cleared for the construction of an apartment tower that the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania will use to generate the necessary funds to restore its cathedral. A four-story apartment building on Chestnut is also being razed as part of the development.
The brownstones are listed on the City’s Register of Historic Places, but were approved for demolition by the Historical Commission in 2012 after determining that allowing the tower to be built to ensure repairs to the cathedral–also known as the Church of the Saviour–was “necessary in the public interest.”
The public interest provision–one of two exceptions that allow demolition of historic properties–has been cited just seven times since the City adopted its present rules and regulations in 1985. Yet unlike the financial hardship clause, which has been cited much more often, “necessary in the public interest” is just that–five words long, with no elaboration on what may constitute the public interest or its necessity.
Most public interest cases have involved non-profit institutions seeking to update or expand their facilities. The most recent was the Curtis Institute of Music, which erected a facility at 16th and Locust Streets in 2010 that removed all but the facades of two historically significant row houses.
In 2007, the Convention Center Authority received approval to demolish an historic firehouse at 1328 Race Street, arguing that the expansion of the Convention Center would generate enormous economic benefits to the city.
However, critics of the Episcopal case questioned whether the act of preservation in itself was a matter of necessity to allow for demolition, and whether the provision could be interpreted to favor one historic property at the expense of another.
David Brownlee, professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania and vice chair of the Design Advocacy Group, testified in opposition to the project and asked the Commission to adopt more stringent guidelines of interpretation going forward.
“Frankly, the door is so wide open as to what the public interest is, I think that there could be an argument made that building an apartment building is in the public interest,” Brownlee said.
The Commission voted to approve after the Diocese and its development partner, Radnor Property Group, agreed to a stipulation to make immediate repairs to the cathedral’s bell tower. At the time, that wasn’t enough assurance for the Preservation Alliance, who appealed the decision.
The appeal was dropped last March as part of a settlement the Alliance reached with the Diocese and Radnor, who agreed to make an escrow payment to cover the bell tower’s repairs and ensure continual maintenance of the church for 50 years.
As another part of the settlement, deputy mayor Alan Greenberger requested that the Commission consider appointing a subcommittee to examine the interpretation of the “public interest” provision. But in August, the Commission voted to decline Greenberger’s request.
The vagueness of the public interest clause “is not strange, it’s common,” Commissioner John Mattioni noted at the meeting. “It involves bringing to the table our good sense and judgment.”
Mattioni opposed the motion to allow the demolition of the brownstones last year, saying that he wanted the Diocese to guarantee first that the cathedral would be completely restored. But he took exception to the notion that the public interest provision is flawed. To him, the specifics of each case make the meaning of “public interest” apparent in context.
“We already deal with this issue in a rational manner,” he said. “In my view, it isn’t appropriate to revisit.”
Other members of the Commission were more receptive to the idea of a subcommittee, and a willingness to consider it in more depth before coming to a resolution. Ultimately, though, Mattioni’s resolution against a subcommittee was adopted through a 4-4 vote (with one abstention), with chairman Sam Sherman casting the deciding vote in favor.
Caroline Boyce, executive director of the Preservation Alliance, expressed her disappointment with the decision, but said that the issue is still a live one.
“The Commission’s interpretation of public interest in the Episcopal case raises complex issues that will continue to be debated after the loss of these two buildings,” she said. “The Alliance will continue to advocate for a narrow and judicious application of the public interest claim.”
The Episcopal Diocese plans to restore its cathedral in three phases. Following immediate repairs to the bell tower, it plans to repoint the entire cathedral and repair its stone ornamentation over the next five years. The third, long-term phase will include restoring the stained-glass windows, replacing the roof, and repairing moisture damage.
The church was originally built in 1855 and designed by Samuel Sloan. It was altered into its present Romanesque design by Charles M. Burns in 1889 and rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1902.
The row house at 3725 Chestnut was erected in the mid-19th century and refaced during the reconstruction of the church, at which time 3723 Chestnut was also built, according to Historical Commission records.
The 25-story tower, whose units will be marketed to graduate students, is slated for completion in summer 2015. The project will also include a childcare facility and the Diocese’s administrative offices, which are estimated to be completed by summer and fall 2014, respectively.