Editor’s Note: When Hidden City staff writer Christopher Mote’s series “How to Reuse a Church” was published in May, it included the former St. Agatha Roman Catholic Church among the top ten shining examples of adaptive reuse of former church buildings. Designed by renowned Philadelphia church architect Edwin Forrest Durang, St. Agatha opened in 1878; in 1979, the Archdiocese merged it with St. James the Greater to become the Church of St. Agatha and St. James.
Chris’ series provided a positive alternative to the barrage of news involving the demolition or potential demolition of churches, such as the Church of the Nativity in Poplar, 40th Street Methodist Episcopal in West Philadelphia, St. Bonaventure Roman Catholic Church in North Philadelphia, and of course, Church of the Assumption in Callowhill.
However, the inclusion of St. Agatha in this series did not altogether go over well with Caroline Dunlop Millett, who purchased the church and its grounds from the Archdiocese in 1988, on the condition she would preserve the facility and continue its contribution to the community. She felt that our inclusion of this particular conversion did not tell enough of the story, so she volunteered to tell it herself. Below is Caroline Dunlop Millett’s story, in her own words, from the first-person point of view of buying, converting, and ultimately losing St. Agatha’s church, now The Cloisters.
In May, Hidden City’s “How to Reuse a Church: Our Top Ten” post named The Cloisters as one of Philadelphia’s most outstanding historic conversions. Ever since reading this survey I’ve been mulling over my own experiences while buying, renovating, and selling this unusual property. Along with extensive fenced in grounds, it included three historic buildings: St Agatha’s church, school, and rectory. The church runs the whole width of the block at 38th and Spring Garden Streets.
Since The Cloisters renovation (1988–1992), over 75 more old churches have been threatened with demolition by Philadelphia real estate developers. Why tear down beautiful historic architecture to build uninteresting new structures? The answer is simple and obvious: in ordinary cases, it is more profitable to destroy than to renovate. But the Cloisters was definitely not an ordinary case. The solutions introduced by our architect Frank Weiss combined historic preservation with cost effective new construction. This innovative approach in itself makes it worthwhile to now revisit my own church story—as a potential model for projects today.
To give you a clear picture I’m providing a short history of St. Agatha’s. The whole story is one of extreme ups and downs—great accomplishments and devastating poverty, grandeur repeatedly destroyed by fires and communities working together joyously, despite fierce opposition.
All this begins just before the end of the Civil War when St. Agatha’s parish was established in an area then called Mantua Village, populated largely by Irish-Americans. The church we see today was dedicated in 1878. It was as grand as many cathedrals, boasting superb marble statuary, copious stained glass windows, and a magnificent soaring steeple topped by a cross (until lightning struck).
In the 1940s, St. Agatha’s parish had 2,500 families in its congregation, still mostly of Irish descent. By 1976, they’d dwindled to 400, and both the church and rectory were closed. The West Philadelphia MOVE crisis greatly exacerbated the 1970s decline. In the 1980s the grounds served as a chop shop for stolen cars. The school basement became a literal garbage dump, and the upper floors gave shelter to drug dealers and their clients. The magnificent church, despite a devastating fire, was still semi-furnished with glorious relics, and all this provided a unique meeting place for prostitutes and their pimps.
The church administrators had certainly tried to stem the tide of this appalling urban decay, but to no avail. Without the resources to save their diocese, they did the next best thing: they sold the property to a preservationist developer who lived in the neighborhood and was committed to revitalizing the community. After turning down commercial developers and sundry slumlords, in 1988 the Catholic Archdioceses of Philadelphia sold the entire block of property to me for $500,000 with the clear understanding that I would preserve the integrity of the architecture, and provide residential homes for the surrounding community. The good fathers made all this possible for me by selling the package at a very moderate price, much lower than strictly commercial developers offered.
For two years, I campaigned for community support from various Mantua and Powelton organizations. (St. Agatha’s was in the Powelton Village Historic District and part of the Mantua neighborhood). After much to do, and what seemed endless arguments, both associations and many immediate neighbors provided strong support for the renovation of the school, rectory, and church. Moreover, my Irish emigrate contractors—80 professional athletes who stayed behind to participate in US sports competitions—transformed themselves into a small army. With my encouragement they wisely hired additional construction workers from the immediate neighborhood, and together the workers saw to everyone’s safety. The 16th Police District officers provided additional and very visible support by stopping by on a regular basis for coffee and donuts. Their presence—along with my 24-hour security guards, and one paroled murderer from Mantua who acted as the gatekeeper—fundamentally changed the community atmosphere. People began to feel safe. By 1991 neighboring friends, families, and children were using the grounds for meetings and special events. They were all welcome to have picnics and play sports on our landscaped grounds, where we had planted thousands of plants and trees.
Before the church renovation began, I had designed, renovated, and decorated the school, creating 50 apartments with a basement health club. All the apartments had garden access and private parking. This conversion retained much of the flavor of St. Agatha’s school, and we preserved the façades, immense windows, and basketball court flooring. I completed the project in 1989 and began renting and selling condos in the school.
Next came the vast Victorian rectory. Leaving the exterior preserved intact, the building was divided into a dozen gracious homes, one-of-a-kind and replete with original architectural detail. Millett Design decorated the new model units featuring original architectural interiors and working fireplaces.
We saved the most complicated and exciting conversion for last: St. Agatha’s church. Architect Frank Weiss considered the project his most important accomplishment, after a lifetime of Philadelphia preservation work. It was his extraordinary idea to build a completely new apartment building within the church, soaring up to the original roof pierced by penthouse windows and balconies. His solution was extremely cost effective, and also made it possible to leave almost all of the original exteriors intact.
As Gene Austin of the Philadelphia Inquirer explained, “three levels of the new church building will extend above the church’s roof line but blend with the structure’s Gothic architecture and retain a churchlike exterior. Weiss said ‘the inner building would hardly touch anything there now’, creating an open area to serve as patios and walkways between the walls of the old and new buildings. … Weiss called St. Agatha’s the ‘landmark of Philadelphia’s Irish-Catholic community.’”
In July of 1990, the Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, West Philadelphia Coalition of Neighbors, and Millett Enterprises hosted a reception for the opening of the church project. Extensively reviewed by the press, and featured on TV, the historic conservation was celebrated as “the most imaginative historic conversion in Philadelphia.”
Shortly thereafter, the federal government shut down Bell Savings Bank and the U.S. Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) called all the banks’ mortgages, including mine. Then Bell’s CEO ended up in jail, and his wife died, along with another high-ranking Bell executive. I sued Bell. It took me two years to win my case, but I was forced to sell the entire property and give all proceeds to the RTC.
Pennrose Properties bought the package, and marketed the The Cloisters as affordable housing. I lost it, but the church was saved.