L&I review board supports civic group’s appeal to save church

The historic Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street was thrown a lifeline today, when the Board of Licenses & Inspections Review voted in favor of a civic group’s appeal to save it.
In a roll call at the start of the review board’s afternoon session, the five members voted unanimously to sustain the appeal made by the Callowhill Neighborhood Association. The vote overturned the Philadelphia Historical Commision’s decision to allow the owner to raze the building. The review board members offered no explanation for their votes.
C. Anne Anderson, a board member of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, said the civic group hadn’t known what to expect from the review board. “I am pleased with today’s decision, and we’re going to keep after it” if the owner and the city appeal the review board’s action, she said.
There is a “very serious buyer” interested in the church building, added Anderson, referring to the Clay Studio, the nonprofit ceramic arts organization based on North 2nd Street that is seeking space to expand its headquarters.
Andrew Palewski, a contractor who specializes in restoring historic landmarks and the coauthor of the nomination of the church to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, said he was “very happy” with today’s decision. He noted that the review board members voted to sustain the appeal with a “proviso,” which Palewski said he hadn’t read yet. “I’m anticipating something along the lines of a limitation of time to find a buyer, or work with this out one way or another,” he said.
“What makes me optimistic today,” Palewski said, is that the Clay Studio directors will now be able to pursue the property without the threat of the wrecking ball hanging over them. “They want to get an engineer and architect to come up with ideas for the building, but they didn’t want to spend that kind of money if right around the corner was this impending demolition. I think there will be a higher comfort level for them now.”
Siloam, which provides services for people with HIV/AIDS, had received permission from the Historical Commission last September to demolish the church building at 1123-33 Spring Garden St. CNA appealed the commission’s decision to the L&I review board, which heard both sides over the course of two sessions in March.
Siloam’s attorney, Kevin Boyle, said in an interview this afternoon that he had not yet talked with the agency leaders and does not know if they will appeal the L&I decision.
But, he said, “I expect it will end up in [Pennsylvania] Commonwealth Court. And I think that’s unfortunate. I think ultimately the Historical Commission decision will prevail,” and the two sides will have to incur more costs in the fight over the future of the building.
The church was designed and built in 1848-49 by the most prolific ecclesiastical architect of 19th-century North America. Over 600 churches were built by Patrick Charles Keely (1816-1896), and Assumption Church is the oldest surviving Keely structure in existence.
It is also a church with deep religious significance. John Neumann helped consecrate the Church of the Assumption, and Katharine Drexel was baptized there. Both became Catholic saints.
The church has been vacant for more than 15 years, since the Catholic Archdiocese abandoned the building and removed its stained-glass windows, altar and other interior décor. Siloam bought the property in 2006 and explored possible uses. The Community Design Collaborative estimated the cost of restoring the building at $4 million, which has been updated to $5 million to $6 million by a consultant hired by Siloam. In November 2008, the Siloam board of directors decided it could not afford to restore or find a buyer for the property, and it sought the demolition permit.
Community members who wanted to preserve the church nominated it for historic designation. The building was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in May 2009. Siloam appealed for permission to demolish the church on the grounds of financial hardship, and the commission’s architectural and financial hardship committees both recommended that the appeal be granted. The full commission voted Sept. 10 to allow the demolition.
Tuesday’s vote was not the first time the L&I review board overturned the Historical Commission. The review board reversed the Historical Commission’s 2007 decision to permit the demolition of the rear portion of the Dilworth House, 223-25 South 6th St., in order to proceed with a condominium tower project designed by Robert Venturi. The owners, John and Mary Turchi, then appealed to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, which last year upheld the power of the L&I review board to overrule Historical Commission decisions.

The Turchis appealed next to the Commonwealth Court, which filed an opinion April 18 that sent the case back to the L&I board for further review. The state court opinion found the review board erred in not giving deference to the Historical Commission’s interpretation of the Historic Preservation Ordinance, specifically the definitions of “demolition” and “alteration.”

Palewski said the Callowhill neighbors’ attorney, Sam Stretton, has said he is willing to argue the case for the Church of the Assumption all the way to the State Supreme Court.


Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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