In the early 1900s, the construction of the Most Precious Blood Roman Catholic Church in Strawberry Mansion marked the pinnacle of a period of change for the neighborhood, when development and the neighborhood’s population boomed following the extension of trolley lines from the city’s core. But now, more than a century later, the building’s demolition to make space for a 44-unit apartment building marks another time of change, as recent redevelopment pressure in the area has brought community members into conflict with developers.
Interior demolition of the Spanish Colonial style church at 2818 W. Diamond Street began earlier this year. The parcel is now a rubble-strewn lot. Most Precious Blood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but not on the Philadelphia Register. An 11th-hour nomination in 2020 failed due to its being filed after demolition permits were issued.
A matching rectory that previously sat immediately west of the building was razed in 2021 to make way for another 33-unit apartment building. A third and fourth building, totaling 124 units, are also planned on adjacent sites, as part of a Diamond Collective residential complex on the properties envisioned by developer Logan Kramer, CEO of Design Pro Development LLC.
Tension over the plans, as well as a wider redevelopment push by real estate investors in Strawberry Mansion, was on full display during an impromptu virtual community meeting on the church’s demolition held in early June, which brought Kramer screen-to-screen with residents and leaders of neighborhood community groups. What started with contrition–Kramer said he had worked hard to find a reuse for Most Precious Blood after purchasing it in 2019 and was sorry to have to demolish it–devolved into open animosity as demolition opponents lobbed criticisms.
During the meeting historic preservationist Oscar Beisert lamented the loss of the building’s architecture and presence in the neighborhood. “Several architectural historians have essentially said it’s one of the finest Catholic churches ever built in Philadelphia, which is a city that’s probably had hundreds of Catholic churches,” Beisert said.
But the cuts went deepest for longtime residents of the neighborhood who encountered the building regularly. “Losing such a great piece of architecture will impact people and bring a certain depression upon this community. The injury is very serious,” said Bonita Cummings, director of Strawberry Mansion Community Concern. “People don’t really have the resources to express how something such as this demolition impacts their lives.”
Kramer responded at first by saying he regretted getting off on a bad foot in Strawberry Mansion. But he concluded the meeting by criticizing the community at large for a perceived recalcitrance toward development. If the goal of a 2020 overlay in the district, which placed some restrictions on new development, “was to stop everyone from coming in,” Kramer said, “job well done.”
Kramer said he was putting all of his properties up for sale in Strawberry Mansion as “the crime has gotten too bad” and was looking toward the suburbs. Or at least communities like Wynnefield, where he said the local community organization “hugs me, loves me.” “I gave them a $50,000 community benefits package. Not because I needed to, not because they asked for it, but they rolled out the red carpet,” Kramer said, adding he’d also built a basketball court.
A Community in Need of a Church
A century and a half ago, it would have been hard to envision such tension. A 1862 map of Strawberry Mansion, submitted by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia in its historical nomination of the church three years ago, revealed a land still dominated by open space. Although gridded with streets, the map shows only sparse housing along Ridge Avenue and a pair of cemeteries as landmarks. How quickly that would change.
Between 1870 and 1890 the area’s population grew from 10,000 to 76,000, a more than seven-fold increase that far outpaced the overall growth rate of 50 percent in the city, according to the nomination. Many of the new arrivals were Irish Catholics who left South Philadelphia after an influx of Italian immigrants moved into the area.
The growth of Strawberry Mansion was also aided by the shift from horse drawn trolleys to electric streetcars, enabling easier commutes to Center City workplaces. And unique to the neighborhood, the nomination notes, was the lack of large industrial or commercial facilities, which further increased residential density. But transportation to the nearest Catholic churches and schools was not convenient, leading Archbishop John Ryan in 1907 to appoint Reverend Joseph L.J. Kirlin to “organize a new parish to be named Most Precious Blood of Our Lord,” the nomination notes.
In his search for a location, Kerlin identified “the only unoccupied lot in the district suitable for church purposes” at the site of the present day church. The plot had belonged to the estate of Lewis Rementer, whose personal history is unknown other than brief documentation noting he was a gardener.
Kirlin purchased the plot and hired architecture firm Ballinger & Perrot to design a church, rectory, and school. Construction began first in 1908 with the school and followed in 1912 with the rectory. Before the church could be constructed, the partnership of Ballinger & Perrot dissolved, causing the parish to turn in 1927 to architect George I. Lovatt Sr. to design the church. Taking the tan brick and limestone color scheme of the first two buildings, the nomination notes, Lovatt “applied them to early Christian architectural styles” from the 5th and 10th centuries for the church’s design.
The building features arched windows and recesses, corinthian columns, brick and copper cornices, a striking rounded apse, mosaics, and various other adornments. A Byzantine-style mosaic above the main entrance displays a pelican, an homage to the church’s Most Precious Blood namesake, after a pre-Christian legend of a mother pelican feeding her chicks her blood to keep them from death, but in turn losing her own life. That story, the nomination notes, “was adopted by the early Church to symbolize the relationship between Jesus and his believers.”
The Decline of a Parish
Despite the beauty and utility of the parish’s new buildings, its heyday would last only a few decades. Following World War II, Strawberry Mansion’s Irish, Italian, and Jewish residents began to depart for the suburbs, replaced by African Americans. In 1950, the nomination notes, the area’s population was 74 percent white and 12 percent Black. Just a decade later those numbers flipped to nine percent white and 91 percent Black.
In the ensuing decades, other nearby Catholic churches began to shutter, leading to an effort at Most Precious Blood to incorporate the area’s new residents who were mostly non-Catholic. Members of the parish changed the church’s services, “blending the Black spiritual experience with traditional Catholicism,” according to the nomination.
“I was impressed with the unique relationship with God that has grown out of being Black in America,” assistant pastor Father Victor Eschbach was quoted saying in a 1985 Philadelphia Inquirer article. “The Catholic Church has taken a paternalistic attitude that we have to do everything for the people and not allow them to do for themselves. Big white daddy can’t do it all and shouldn’t,” said Eschbach. “The desire for people to express themselves is an important part of our growth here.”
The church formed a 60-member gospel choir and developed new ancillary activities, increasing weekly attendance and donations for a time. But ultimately the parish still declined. In 1988, the school was closed and sold four years later to become low-income apartments, a use which continues today. The parish dissolved a year later. In 1993, the church and rectory were sold to Garden of Prayer Church of Philadelphia, which called the building home until 2017. But finding the church too big and in need of much repair, the nomination states, Garden of Prayer put the buildings up for sale, enabling Kramer to purchase them in the spring of 2019.
Angels and Demos
According to Kramer’s statements at the June community meeting, he made multiple attempts to find a new use for Most Precious Blood since acquiring it four years ago and appreciates the architectural value of the church. “It breaks my heart, just as much as I think it breaks everyone’s heart on this call, that Most Precious Blood is being demolished,” Kramer said. “I think it’s an awesome and unique building.”
Kramer said he had tried to bring in “close to seven different commercial users” and sell the property through several brokers, all unsuccessfully. Potential explored uses, Kramer claims, were for a brewery, a restaurant, a concert venue, and a food hall with a farmers market. But with none of those options coming to fruition, Kramer said he’d reached an agreement to raze the church and then sell the property to new ownership, which plans to construct a affordable apartment building with 44 units, which, Kramer believes, will be under $1,000 in rent. Kramer claimed he’d still be taking a $400,000 loss on the property. He added he’d adaptively reused other buildings, including a church at 1732 N 22nd Street. “I follow a lot of Philadelphia development web pages, and I see there is constant heartbreak of, ‘What is the next historic building that’s being demolished?’ I don’t want to be a developer that has that as my reputation,” he said.
Kramer tried to extend an olive branch to preservationists and community members on the call, saying he’d like to work with them to achieve better public policies such as tax abatements and other financial incentives to offset the higher costs to rehab historic buildings. He also noted he had contracted with Princeton Reuse, a New Jersey-based salvage company, to carefully deconstruct the church and save much of the materials to either reuse on other historic buildings or sell to community members looking for a keepsake.
However, as the call wore on it was clear Kramer’s words hadn’t done much to win attendees over. Beisert pressed Kramer on why he had purchased the building in the first place if he was only going to destroy it. Kramer claimed the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic had changed the financial calculus. Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said he wished that Kramer had approached preservationist groups earlier in the process so that they could have assisted with trying to find an adaptive reuse or financial support that could have kept the building intact.
It became increasingly evident during the meeting that Kramer also harbored frustrations with attendees on the call. He admitted to “very quietly” pulling the initial demolition permit in 2021 before speaking to residents about it, but placed the onus back on the community. “Unfortunately there are organizations out there that will nominate your building, and, as a developer, even if you’re doing an adaptive reuse of a [historic] building, the moment your building is nominated it puts complete financial and total handcuffs on you,” Kramer said. “If I come to the community and tell them, ‘I feel like my right and ability to do something is going to be taken away’, it’s not a good feeling for me.”
In addition to his closing statement in which he cited rising crime in the city as a reason he was shifting focus to the suburbs, Kramer also said that nothing was going to stop the demolition, which was already well underway.
Steinke later told Hidden City that the Preservation Alliance had raced to nominate the building for legal protection on the local register after learning about development activity in the immediate area in 2020, which would have restricted the demolition of the church’s exterior. But Kramer obtained the demolition permits first, which, by law, killed the nomination. “It was a substantial work of ecclesiastical architecture by a prominent architect. It is very sad to see it come down,” Steinke said. He added that the Preservation Alliance is now working with Strawberry Mansion community groups to take a more proactive approach. They collectively worked with City Council president Darrell Clarke’s office to create the 2020 overlay, which restricts building heights, features like roof decks, and which materials can be used in new construction.
More recently, the Preservation Alliance has been in conversation with the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation to utilize a grant from the William Penn Foundation to help repair roughly 25 historic homes in the area in the hopes of ensuring the neighborhood’s preservation into the future.
For those who may have fond memories of the Most Precious Blood parish and its buildings, Reverend Tyrone Williams, program coordinator of the Strawberry Mansion CDC, is working to put together relics from the church to give to prior parishioners, students, or other interested community members. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.