Demolition debate may continue over Church of the Assumption

The court battle over the demolition of the historic Church of the Assumption may continue, despite the recent change in ownership.

Stradley Ronon Stevens and Young, the law firm representing Siloam, the social service agency that sold the property early this month to developer John Wei, sent a letter last week to attorney Sam Stretton, who represents the Callowhill Neighborhood Association.

In the letter, attorney Kevin R. Boyle states, “I do not believe [the sale of the property] really changes anything with respect to the case. Just as historic designation would run with the land, so does the approval to demolish and the litigation pertaining to the same.”

Stretton had received a call from a clerk for Common Pleas Judge Idee C. Fox, who had read about the sale of the property. Fox is currently considering an appeal by Siloam on the right of the Board of License and Inspection Review to reverse the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s vote to allow the demolition of the church based on financial hardship of the former owner.

Stretton sent the letter from Boyle to the judge, along with his response, which said: “I am providing this information to you since this information I believe makes the case moot and the decision of the Board of License and Inspection Review should stand.”

Siloam had received permission to raze the church from the Historical Commission based on its argument that it could not afford to rehabilitate the building and could not find a buyer for the property. The L&I board then overturned that decision.

On July 5, Siloam went to settlement with John Wei, of MJ Central Investment LP, for $1.12 million for the church and the adjacent rectory, convent, school and land. 

“My position is, there no hardship now that they have a buyer,” Stretton told PlanPhilly. “It’s up to the judge to decide what happens.”

Wei has told PlanPhilly that he has “no idea yet” what he will do with the site, or whether he will seek to demolish the church building.

The Church of the Assumption was designed and built in 1848-49 by Patrick Charles Keely, the nation’s most prolific ecclesiastical architect of his time, and the church at 1133 Spring Garden Street is the oldest surviving Keely structure. It was consecrated by John Neumann and was the site of Katharine Drexel’s baptism. Both became Catholic saints.

The Callowhill civic group and the larger preservation community consider the distinctive church building a neighborhood landmark. It was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2009.

The Callowhill Neighborhood Association has fought to preserve the church through Philadelphia Historical Commission hearings, Board of License and Inspection Review hearings, and most recently the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Judge Fox heard arguments in May regarding the L&I board’s right to reverse the Historical Commission vote to allow the demolition of the church.

The Archdiocese abandoned the church property more than 15 years ago, and sold it to Siloam in 2006. The cost of restoring the church building had been estimated at $6 million.

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