Cathedral plan would raze two historic buildings to save church

Is it in the public interest to demolish two historic buildings in order to acquire funds to save a third?

That’s one of the questions that will be raised in coming weeks as the Philadelphia Historical Commission considers a development plan introduced recently by the Episcopal Cathedral, located on 38th Street between Chestnut and Ludlow Streets.

The church is seeking permission to raze the buildings it owns at 3721 and 3725 Chestnut, both of which are on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, and to allow a private developer to erect a 25-story apartment tower on those sites and an adjacent, landscaped green lot also owned by the church.

The developer would operate the apartment building, “with some financial deal that would give the cathedral $3.5 million that they need to deal with some structural problems in the church building itself,” said John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

Hearing details
PLACE: COMMISSION CONFERENCE ROOM, ROOM 578, CITY HALL

TIME: 11:30 A.M. ADDRESS: 13-19 S 38TH ST AND 3723 AND 3725 CHESTNUT ST
Project: Demolish two buildings, construct mixed-use tower Review Requested: Final Approval and In Concept Owner: Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania Applicant: Neil Sklaroff, Ballard Spahr LLP
History: 1889; Church of the Savior, Parish Building and Rectory; Charles M. Burns, architect; rebuilt after fire, 1902-1906 Individual Designation: 5/7/1981 District Designation: None
Staff Contact: Jon Farnham, jon.farnham@phila.gov, 215-686-7660

The Italianate church – originally called the Church of the Savior — was built in 1898 by Charles Burns, a prominent ecclesiastical architect of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and rebuilt in 1906 after a fire. Burns’ work includes the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia and portions of St. Timothy’s Protestant Episcopal Church on Ridge Avenue.

Burns also built the brownstone at 3725 Chestnut and modified the existing house at 3721 to serve the church complex. A passage from Chestnut Street connects the buildings to the church’s interior courtyard.

The buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a related complex, Gallery said. But they are listed separately on the Philadelphia Register.

One aspect of the plan that makes it “an interesting, complicated proposal,” Gallery said, is that both the cathedral and the two Chestnut Street buildings are on the Register and the corner garden is not. “So the question of what is the Historical Commission’s jurisdiction has been a little complicated to figure out,” he said.

“The other thing that makes it very complicated is that they’re claiming this is in the public interest, which is what we have a lot of concern about,” Gallery continued.

Buildings on the Philadelphia Register can be altered or demolished if preserving them would be a financial hardship on the owner, or if changing or razing them is in the public interest, according to the preservation ordinance. The public interest provision that allows for demolition has been applied in only a few cases, including the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Curtis Institute of Music’s new building.

The church “seems to be claiming that the public interest is getting money for the organization to be able to make the repairs to the cathedral,” Gallery said. “Whether that was really intended by the public interest provision gives us a lot of concerns about it.”

The Preservation Alliance is also questioning whether the scale of the proposed apartment building is “an appropriate relationship to the cathedral,” he said.

The size and glass treatment of the apartment tower and a section that would block light from entering the church’s stained glass windows are all adverse impacts on the cathedral, according to the Preservation Alliance.

The church’s “objectives are obviously good objectives,” Gallery said. “They’re trying to find a way to preserve their church building and improve their own space. But the scale, massing and character of the new building seems to be overwhelming in relation to the cathedral itself.”

The cathedral’s neighbors have not taken a stance on the proposal, and many are not yet aware of the plan, Gallery also said. Leaders of the Spruce Hill and Powelton Village sections have not opposed the plan. “It’s not on anyone’s real turf, so none of them think it has an impact on their neighborhood,” he said.

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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