Looking back at preservation efforts in 2012. A year of threatened churches, grand homes, and great fighters

It was a year of legal maneuvering, courtroom drama, despair and hope for some of the Philadelphia area’s great architectural and historical resources. Nearly every battle for preservation has been daunting, at best.

A church under siege

Many of the headlines in 2012 focused on religious buildings – a recognition of their beauty, their shifting place in their communities, and the mounting problems of abandonment and neglect.

The fate of one church, in particular, has been the center of debate. The Church of the Assumption, 1123 Spring Garden St., had been owned by Siloam, a social service agency with diminishing financial resources in its mission to assist clients with HIV-AIDS. For several years it sought permission to raze the deteriorating church, an important 19th century architectural and religious site, which Siloam couldn’t afford to restore at a cost of at least $5 million and seemed unable to sell. The Philadelphia Historical Commission supported the agency’s request, despite objections raised by the Callowhill Neighborhood Association and the preservation community. Last February, the Board of Licenses & Inspection Review overturned the PHC vote, saying Siloam hadn’t tried hard enough to find a buyer for the building. In July, a buyer came forward, and neighbors were optimistic the church would remain standing. Common Pleas Court, meanwhile, upheld an appeal by Siloam, saying BLIR was wrong to overturn the demolition request. In November, notices appeared on the doors of the church that the building would be demolished on Dec. 11 or after. The lawyer representing the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, Samuel Stretton, had made an emergency plea last week to the BLIR to prevent the demolition of the building at 1123 Spring Garden St. The stay was granted by a unanimous vote of the board on the same day the demolition permit became effective. An appeal of the permit will be heard by the BLIR on Jan. 8 at 3 p.m.

Salvation for a Furness church

The future looks much brighter for another 19th century church, 19th Street Baptist in South Philadelphia, a long-unpolished gem designed by Furness & Hewitt. A year ago, following a small earthquake and the pounding rains of Hurricane Irene – and decades of deferred maintenance — the church’s serpentine facade and stone walls were failing. The city warned that demolition would be necessary unless immediate steps were taken to shore up the building. A coalition of congregants, University of Pennsylvania faculty members, and other supporters literally took matters into their own hands. With limited funds and limitless energy, they patched the roof, preserved the fallen stone, secured the walls, and laid plans for an educational conservation project that will attract grants and eventually enough funding to restore what Penn historic preservation professor Frank Matero calls “an honest-to-God landmark.”

A Trumbauer home lost

It was a year of bad news/good news for residential landmarks on the Main Line. In April, one of the region’s grand manors, Bloomfield, was destroyed by fire. The Villanova estate was designed in 1923 by Horace Trumbauer, the era’s most prominent architect whose firm also built the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Free Library, and Irvine Auditorium. The owner of the property is now suing the couple who were renting the property, accusing them of fraud and arson.

A Furness home purchased

A Furness & Evans design, called Dolobran, went up for auction in October. The Haverford estate was commissioned by shipbuilder Clement Acton Griscom in 1881, and over the course of the next 14 years Frank Furness designed and redesigned the home, which grew to 19 rooms and nearly 17,000 square feet. The Oct. 6 auction failed to reach the $750,000 minimum. But a post-auction deal was reached for $1.5 million — a happy ending during a year when Furness has been celebrated at events and programs throughout his hometown, which hasn’t always appreciated his work.

Tribute to a fighter

In June, national attention landed on a more humble building in North Philadelphia. Joe Frazier’s Gym was named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of  “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”  The campaign to preserve the building at 2917 North Broad Street has been led by students and staff at Temple University, and has been embraced by the city, which also plans a statue to honor the homegrown boxing icon. 

Tribute to another fighter

Anyone who has attended hearings of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, courtroom proceedings on threatened historical resources, or rallies to save great buildings is aware of the invaluable leadership of John Gallery. He has been executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia for a decade, during which he has expanded conversations about preservation far beyond Colonial Philadelphia to every period and every neighborhood that has historic resources of irreplaceable value to their communities. He has also shown how a group of neighbors can rescue a beloved building, and how an individual can impact the landscape. Gallery has announced plans to retire from the Preservation Alliance at the end of this year. Hopefully, he won’t wander too far from the fray.

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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