Historical Commission tables Overbrook Farms discussion again, OKs church window removal

The Philadelphia Historical Commission Friday once again tabled its review of a proposed Overbook Farms Historic District, following a request by Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger.

Sara Merriman, Greenberger’s designee on the Commission, started off the meeting by emphasizing that the request was “not about trying to make sure this designation doesn’t happen,” and Commission Executive Director Jonathan Farnham assured those present  that the matter would be reconsidered “sometime in the near future.”

After the meeting, Merriman told PlanPhilly that Greenberger wanted time to get up to speed on the “concerns and confusion” surrounding the designation and that discussions with Councilman Curtis Jones and neighbors would continue.

Bracketing today’s hearing, a lengthy examination of a proposal by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania to remove stained glass windows from the individually-designated and now-vacant St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Germantown ended in approval.

The Commission has rejected such a move with this church twice before, asserting that the Diocese should have a buyer in place before attempting to remove the windows. This time it has one, the Waldorf School, which has made the removal a contingency of its purchase, contending that it requires a lighter (and more secular) environment for its intended use of the space as a facility for student assembly.

The Diocese has agreed to remove the stained glass and replace it with clear glass. Mary Kohart, representing the Diocese, emphasized that the church has been on the market for seven years and this is the first time a buyer has come forth. She also pointed out that the intent was to either keep the windows within the Diocese or sell them to other religious institutions.

Limiting their review to the guidelines of preservation standards, both the Commission staff and its Architectural Committee have recommended that the Commission deny the application. Today, however, the Commission broadened the discussion to work toward a solution that would allow the sale to go through.

“We have been dealing with churches falling into disrepair … I view this as a chance to save a church that has some architectural significance,” Commission Chair Sam Sherman stated in kicking off the debate. Later, he added, that he didn’t wanted the Commission “to have another Church of the Assumption on its hands.”

In voicing the concerns of the Architectural Committee, Chair Dominique Hawkins established that chief among them was questions of the replacement glass as “stop-gap.” “If [they’re] accepted, we may end up living with them indefinitely,” she said.

Farnham clarified that the proposal should not be viewed as “temporary,” expressing satisfaction with the plans reviewed by Commission staff. Later, he said that although the modifications clearly were not in compliance with preservation standards, a provision for hardship might allow the process to go forward.

John Gallery of the Preservation Alliance strongly protested the request, saying ” if you blithely say, ‘OK, take out all the windows’, that’s going to be a precedent.” He suggested that “many” of the windows weren’t even that religious.

Ultimately, the Commission formulated an approval whose conditions included that the windows not be removed until after the sale was closed, that demolition and other permits be in place, and that the details of the new windows be approved by Commission staff.

In between the District and the Church, the majority of other cases reviewed during the meeting involved residential work. In addition, all three cases involving commercial signs were denied. In their variety — a request for an unusual wooden awning, a request for two more signs on a CVS storefront that already sports four signs, and a request for legalization of two awnings — they provided still more evidence to support the attention this signage has been receiving as a new zoning code is readied for adoption.

Contact the reporter at jgreco@planphilly.com and follow her on Twitter @joanngreco

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