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A Philly charter school bought this church building, and now it faces a preservation battle

"We were told this is about architecture," said Boys Latin CEO Noah Tennant. "Which to me just kind of reeked of privilege.”

Noah Tennant, Boys' Latin CEO, stands in front of a vacant church building on the charter's middle school campus. The church is being considered for historic designation, which the charter says would make it a lot more expensive to renovate into a gym and performing arts space.
Noah Tennant, Boys' Latin CEO, stands in front of a vacant church building on the charter's middle school campus. The church is being considered for historic designation, which the charter says would make it a lot more expensive to renovate into a gym and performing arts space.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The church at 63rd and Callowhill Streets in West Philadelphia sits empty, its stone facade rising above a row of houses and small businesses.

Boys’ Latin Charter School owns the former Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church and sees it as a future gymnasium and performing arts space for its middle-school students, who currently play in a parking lot.

To historian Celeste Morello, it’s an architecturally distinctive piece of Philadelphia’s past worth preserving.

“I see this building and its function in the community and what it serves visually," she said. "It tells a story.”

Morello’s vision — designation of the church on the city’s Register of Historic Places — is opposed by Boys’ Latin, which wants to renovate the building without having to adhere to standards for historic structures.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission is scheduled to consider the matter Friday. If it designates the building as historic, Boys’ Latin says its proposed renovation costs could grow, from $3.5 million to $7.5 million. School leaders say that would be prohibitively expensive.

» READ MORE: Preservationists want historic districts. Residents fear the cost. Will West Philly’s Overbrook Farms get designation?

They also object to the process for granting historic designations, which they see as sidelining the needs of their 375 students, most of whom are black and live in surrounding neighborhoods.

“It seems to us like an issue where there are folks who abandoned the community where our school now resides, but are reaching back to further marginalize our students and community,” said Noah Tennant, the charter’s CEO.

At a meeting last month of a subcommittee that advanced Morello’s nomination to the full commission, Tennant cited the 1954 decision that ended segregation in schools, adding, "Here we still stand in 2019, facing vestiges of that same system.”

“We were told this is about architecture,” Tennant said in an interview. “Which to me just kind of reeked of privilege.”

Morello, who lives in South Philadelphia and has moved to designate more than 30 buildings in the city, says charter school officials have been “uninformed.” She noted that Mayor Jim Kenney has prioritized preservation.

“There’s just such a high element of ignorance and hostility,” she said of Boys’ Latin. Tennant, she said, “brings in all this racist stuff, and everything else." She said she and other preservationists “give dignity” to buildings and neighborhoods.

Morello said that if Boys’ Latin “destroys" the building, "they’re not going to be giving those students lessons in life they truly deserve.”

Founded in 1886, the church was designed by architect Frank Rushmore Watson in a Romanesque-style also popular in Boston, according to Morello’s nomination, which says it “reflects the environment in an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2014 closed the church — which by then had been renamed Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament — saying it was too expensive to maintain.

It sold the property — which also includes a former rectory, convent, and school — to a foundation affiliated with Boys’ Latin in 2015, and said the church had no “architectural, historic or religious significance.” The archdiocese has opposed preservation efforts for a number of churches.

» READ MORE: Archdiocese vows to fight preservationists

At the time, Boys’ Latin, which has a separate high school campus in Cobbs Creek, intended to renovate the church. But it delayed the plans due to budget constraints, according to school leaders.

Since then, construction costs have increased from $1.5 million to $3.5 million, said Kerry Woodward, Boys’ Latin’s chief operating officer.

Historic designation would raise the cost again, by as much as $4 million, Woodward said. To create a gym, Boys’ Latin wants to take out the church’s columns, which it planned to do by removing the roof.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. Boys’ Latin envisions fund-raisers to pay for the project. “These are folks who are interested in investing in education,” Woodward said, “not in facilities.”

She and Tennant met Tuesday with representatives of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

“The preservation of historic churches is one of the most significant issues facing the preservation movement not just in this city but across the country,” said Paul Steinke, the alliance’s executive director. He said he was encouraged that Boys’ Latin intends to repurpose the church.

“Our hope and goal is to continue to work with them to find a way forward that preserves the church while also meeting the school’s needs,” Steinke said. To that end, he advised the school to seek a continuance from the commission Friday.

Tennant is concerned that doing so would prevent students and community members from addressing the commission.

He is also hesitant about Steinke’s offer to find a compromise, worried the school would be “channeling money toward meeting preservation standards" instead of “properly valuing what we owe to our students.”