Owner of historic Church of the Assumption says he isn’t able to preserve it

The owner of the Church of the Assumption, the historic structure at the center of a longstanding preservation battle, said he does not want to raze what he calls a “beautiful building,” but its current condition and situation leave him no choice.

John Wei, a Chinatown developer who purchased the church at 1123 Spring Garden St. and the adjacent buildings in July, posted demolition notices on the property on Nov. 30. The notices say the building will be demolished on or after Dec. 11.

The Callowhill Neighborhood Association last week appealed the demolition permit issued by the Department of Licenses & Inspection and filed a stay in Commonwealth Court to stop the demolition, said Andrew Palewski, who wrote the nomination that led to the church’s designation on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2009.

A stay was also requested before the Board of L&I Review.

Commonwealth Court denied the stay citing lack of jurisdiction over the new owner. They said that the new owner was not named in the appeal and is therefore not party to the appeal. The document states: “The emergency application is denied without prejudice to seek relief from a tribunal having jurisdiction over the party holding the demolition permit at issue.”

The BLIR appeal is pending. The Board will decide on the issue in a “closed session” meeting Tuesday at 12:45 p.m.

Sarah McEneaney, CNA president, said, “We continue to believe the church is a valuable historic building that should be conserved and repurposed.”

The CNA had met with Wei, of MJ Central Investment LP, when he first took ownership of the property from Siloam, the social service agency that had obtained permission from the Philadelphia Historical Commission to demolish the church based on financial hardship. The CNA had offered to help Wei find a new use for the property, McEneaney said. 

Wei told PlanPhilly on Saturday that he still does not know what he will do with the site, and he is willing to meet with members of the community who wish to save the church.

But he said the immediate concern is safety. “The towers could fall at any time. If it falls down and kills somebody, who will take the liability?” he said. “I like it, too, but no one would pay to fix it. I don’t have the money to fix it.”

In October, Wei told PlanPhilly the city had issued violations, and the church building is dangerous.”

The building code violations at the site are not new, noted Palewski, a contractor who specializes in historic preservation.

Siloam contacted the Department of Licenses & Inspections in 2010 and requested an inspection of the building for structural problems, Palewski said. Siloam’s engineer pointed out cracks in the masonry, and the L&I inspectors cited the condition as unsafe and required Siloam to repair them with mortar. The repairs were never performed, Palewski said.

Colliers International, the real estate firm that handled the sale of the property, showed the violations to potential buyers, Palewski also said.

Wei paid over $1 million for the church, adjacent school, rectory, convent and land. Siloam received estimates of $5 million to $7 million to restore the church building. The surrounding properties are in good condition.

Last October, Court of Common Pleas Judge Idee C. Fox ruled that the Board of L&I Review had been wrong to overturn the Historical Commission’s decision to grant Siloam a permit to demolish the church.

The CNA appealed that decision to the L&I review board, which reversed the commission’s decision, saying Siloam had not done enough to market the property.  Siloam appealed the Board’s decision to the Court of Common Pleas.

The court said the evidence—Siloam’s attempts to sell the building, and a Community Design Collaborative estimate of the cost of rehab—showed that the church is in such poor condition that it has no value on the real estate market and cannot be adapted for reuse.

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 is the oldest surviving Keely structure. It also has historical religious significance. 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. 

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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