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Another L&I round coming up for Church of the Assumption

It’s Round 2 tomorrow for the Callowhill Neighborhood Association as it argues before the Board of Licenses & Inspections Review to stop Siloam, a social service agency that owns the Church of the Assumption, from razing the historic church building based on financial hardship.

The protracted fight over the preservation – or demolition – of a sainted place in the Callowhill section of Philadelphia (it was consecrated by John Neumann and Katharine Drexel was baptized there) has brought community associations, preservationists, developers, historical commissions and city government agencies into the proverbial ring.

Here is the updated narrative version of events, with key dates and players:

The Church of the Assumption has architectural and cultural significance both locally and nationally. It was designed and built by the most prolific ecclesiastical architect of 19th century America, Patrick Charles Keely (1816-1896). It is the oldest surviving Keely structure (there were over 600) in existence. The church was erected in 1848-49 and had extensive renovations in 1899.

The Church of the Assumption has been vacant for more than 15 years, since the Catholic Archdiocese abandoned the building and removed the stained-glass windows, altar and other interior décor. The social service agency Siloam bought the church in 2006 and explored possible uses for the property. It asked the Community Design Collaborative in 2007 to assess the cost of restoring the building. The answer: $4 million, which has since been updated to $5 million to $6 million by a cost consultant. In November 2008, the Siloam board of directors decided it could not afford to restore or find a buyer for the building, and it sought a permit for demolition. In March 2009, Siloam received a permit for interior demolition. In May 2009, the Philadelphia Historical Commission named the building to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which protected the church from complete demolition.

In January 2010, Siloam engaged the real estate firm Colliers International to market the property. About 60 inquiries were made – including interest from developer Bart Blatstein – but none resulted in a sale.

Stabilizing the structure would cost $1.5 million, and Siloam doesn’t have that much money. The estimate of $164,000 the agency has received for demolition of the building is not enough to “even put a band-aid on the building” to stabilize it.

David Schaaf, who represents the Philadelphia Planning Commission on the Historical Commission, raised the possibility of mothballing the church. The Planning Commission sees the neighborhood “moving up on the economic scale” and “Ridge Avenue will be more like Main Street Manayunk in the future,” he said. “Do we really need to destroy a building that has this much profound, engaged history if we thought we could mothball it and have a real prize for the future?”

Andrew Palewski, a contractor who specializes in restoring historic landmarks and the author of the nominating application for the church to the Philadelphia Register, began the public comment period with a Powerpoint that questioned the financial hardship claims of Siloam. Palewski said the building has not been a financial drain on the agency, and the purchase of the entire site, including the church, rectory, convent and adjacent parking lots required a $214,000 investment by Siloam. Seventy-five percent of the property remained unused space by the agency, he said. The convent was “ripe for development,” and only one of the three parking lots is used by Siloam staff. The agency currently has more than $1 million in “unneeded real estate,” he said. That it has not rented or sold any of that property “defeats the argument of financial hardship.” He also said the church has not been properly marketed, noting that the Colliers International official said it takes two to three years to normally sell such a property, and the church has only been on the market since January.

Amy Hooper, president of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, has also testified in opposition to the demolition of the church. “The Historical Commission’s duty is to be forward-thinking and consider all the options” before allowing the demolition of “this monumentally magnificent structure.”

Representing Save Our Sites, architect David S. Traub proposed a “six-month concerted effort to market and sell” the church. “In six months if we’re still here, we will feel we have done the right thing,” he said. “This neighborhood is a resurgent one, and it has a bright future.” The Church of the Assumption is a “historic building that cannot be replaced.”

John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, conceded that the restoration of the church is “a very difficult matter.” The Preservation Alliance, he said, “shares the concern that additional time may be of value to save this property.”

Gallery questioned whether the marketing efforts for the church so far were a “fair test” of its possible sale, and he noted that there have been cases when a church has been sold for non-religious purposes.

In September of 2010, the Philadelphia Historical Commission reversed its stance on the church and voted 6-5 to allow the demolition. Commission Chairman Sam Sherman cast the deciding sixth vote. The commission’s architectural committee had voted Aug. 24, 2010 and the financial hardship committee had voted Sept. 8, 2010 to recommend that Siloam be allowed to raze the building, which had been vacant since 1995.

In late September of 2010, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission entered the fray, with its chairman Wayne Spilove vowing to do whatever he can to ensure that the building survives. Spilove, a prominent developer in the Rittenhouse Square area and a former chair of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, this week wrote a letter to Siloam, the social service agency that owns the church, stating that state funds provided to the church in 2007 should be used for finding a way to restore, not demolish, the historic building.

That brings us to the March 14 Board of Licenses & Inspections Review hearing.

The City Solicitor’s Office is contending the L&I board overstepped its authority when it reversed a Historical Commission ruling on the redevelopment of the Dilworth House. The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas may rule on that case in the next few weeks.

The L&I board cannot sit in “de novo review” – as if no prior hearing had been held – of Historical Commission decisions, the City Solicitor argued in the Dilworth brief.

But that’s just what the L&I board is doing again in the church case.

At the March 14 hearing, the attorney for the civic group, Sam Stretton, cited the Dilworth case and asked the board to follow the strictures of a de novo review in hearing the appeal.

Assistant City Solicitor Leonard Reuter, working in tandem with Siloam attorney Kevin Boyle, began the agency’s case by calling Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Historical Commission, who recalled the history of the church case before the commission. After five hours of testimony the hearing was continued to March 28.

Tomorrow’s hearing will be held at 10:00 AM, 1515 Arch Street, 18th Floor. PlanPhilly will cover. More information about the church is available at www.callowhill.org.

Contact the reporter at mgolas@design.upenn.edu

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