Church preservation case to be heard in Common Pleas Court

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court has set the timetable for hearing the appeal to allow a social service agency to raze the historic Church of the Assumption, while the agency seeks to sell the entire complex of buildings on the 1100 block of Spring Garden Street.

Judge Idee Fox has issued a scheduling order calling for Siloam, which assists people with HIV/AIDS, and the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, which is working with the preservation community to save the church building, to file their briefs by early December. Fox will hear oral arguments sometime after Jan. 2.

Last May, the Board of Licenses & Inspections Review sustained an appeal by the neighborhood group to preserve the building. The L&I vote overturned a decision by the Philadelphia Historical Commission to permit the demolition of the church. Siloam’s appeal asks the court to uphold the decision of the Historical Commission. The L&I board must file findings with the Common Pleas Court explaining its reasons for reversing the Historical Commission.

The Church of the Assumption was built in 1848-49 by Patrick Charles Keely, the most prolific ecclesiastical architect of the period. The church at 1123-33 Spring Garden is the oldest surviving example of Keely’s work. The building also has historical religious significance. John Neumann helped consecrate the church and Katharine Drexel was baptized there. Both became Catholic saints.

Siloam has owned the church and two adjacent buildings since 2006. It has sought to raze the church because it can’t afford the estimated $5 million need to restore it and has been unable to find a buyer for the building. Last month, the agency announced that it will try to sell the church, school, convent and adjacent parking lots for $1.7 million and move to another site.

But Andrew Palewski, a contractor who specializes in historic preservation and the coauthor of the nomination that placed the Church of the Assumption on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2009, said it is not clear on the real estate firm’s website what is being sold. “The most attractive building is the convent on Brandywine Street from the standpoint of redevelopment,” he said. “It’s oddly absent from the listing” on the Colliers International website.

Palewski said putting the entire church compound on the market “changes the playing field in terms of who might be interested in buying the property… It comes down to how well they market the property and how badly they want to sell it.”

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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