Philadelphia Church To Fall?
Philadelphia Church To Fall?
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Oct. 29, 2010
Church of the Assumption, Philadelphia
Credit: Preservation for Greater Philadelphia
A Gothic Revival church that has stood in north Philadelphia since 1849 may be gone as soon as its owner raises the money necessary for demolition.
Last month, the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted 6-5 to allow a nonprofit HIV/AIDS support group called Siloam Wellness to demolish the Church of the Assumption. The same commission voted in May 2009 to designate the church a city landmark, affording it protection. However, Siloam won permission to raze the church under a hardship provision found in the city's historic-preservation ordinance.
Challenging the commission's Sept. 10 decision, the Callow Hill Neighborhood Association and five neighbors filed an appeal last month. On Nov. 30, the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections will hear the appeal.
Designed by prolific church architect Patrick Charles Keely, the Church of the Assumption was consecrated by Catholic saint John Neumann and hosted the baptism of Katherine Drexel, another Catholic saint. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia abandoned the church more than 10 years ago and sold it to Siloam in 2006 for $800,000, well below market value.
A state grant helped Siloam purchase the Church of the Assumption, and Siloam is seeking another state grant to pay for the demolition, according to last month's testimony by Joe Lukach, Siloam's executive director. Lukach did not respond to a request for comment.
Neighbors suspect that the nonprofit wants to cash in on the property, located in an up-and-coming area. Siloam laid off staff members earlier this month and vacated its offices at the church site.
"The property is worth more money without the church on it," says Andrew Palewski, a historic-preservation consultant and member of the board of directors of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. "Ultimately, [Siloam] is going to leave the neighborhood, and they're just going to leave a hole in the ground."
Last fall, Siloam demolished the interior of the church, removing pews, marble floors, and the main altar. "They came in and just destroyed everything," Palewski says. "They were able to legally obtain the permit for interior demolition." (As of December 2009, Philadelphia's historic-preservation ordinance protects interiors as well as exteriors of landmarked buildings.)
Siloam "really just got in over their heads with a building they didn't have the resources [to restore]," says Ben Leech, director of advocacy for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.
Siloam estimates that restoration will cost anywhere from $1.5 to $6 million, but Leech points out that "basic stabilization and mothballing would be far less."
The Preservation Alliance, while trying to rescue the Church of the Assumption, is figuring out how to save other local churches, Leech says. "We recognize that this will be the first of probably dozens of large historic churches with small or no congregations. It will be the first of many."
A final decision isn't likely on Nov. 30, Palewski says, because either party can appeal to a higher court. "This legal battle could go on for at least another year."