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Philadelphia Historical Commission sides with Boys’ Latin school over fate of church building

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is history," said Eric Dobson, a board member for Boys' Latin Charter School, which said historic designation would prevent the charter from renovating the church into gym space for its students.

View of the church's stone structure at the Boys' Latin Charter School at 63rd and Callowhill Streets.
View of the church's stone structure at the Boys' Latin Charter School at 63rd and Callowhill Streets.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia Historical Commission on Friday declined a request to designate as historic a West Philadelphia church building owned by Boys’ Latin Charter School, after the school said doing so could derail its plans to convert the building into a needed gym for students.

The commission voted that the church at 63rd and Callowhill Streets — which once was Our Lady of the Holy Rosary parish — met the standards for preservation. But it chose not to designate it based on the school’s contention that doing so would more than double its $3.5 million price tag for constructing the gym.

Boys’ Latin CEO Noah Tennant also said the efforts to preserve the building in such a way didn’t reflect the broader neighborhood and the low-income community the school seeks to serve.

It “is really protecting, I believe, white history, white culture ... at the expense of 375 students who will not otherwise have a gymnasium," he said.

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

The charter school’s foundation bought the church from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2015 to house its middle school campus. It currently occupies a former rectory, convent and school on the property. During recess, students fill the parking lot.

The building was proposed for the designation by Celeste Morello, a historian who lives in South Philadelphia and has nominated more than 30 buildings in the city, including other churches.

The church was constructed between 1887 and 1890, designed by architect Frank Rushmore Watson in a Romanesque style.

“We have here an outstanding church ... in West Philadelphia,” Morello told the commission before its vote Friday. “This is a new type of breakthrough for that Haddington/Overbrook neighborhood.”

Historic designation would inflate the projected cost of renovating the church from $3.5 million to $7.5 million, according to Boys’ Latin. The school — which like other charters is publicly funded — planned to raise funds to help pay for the renovation. Its leaders said the project will require removing the church roof, a likely violation of the historic standards, although they intended to keep intact its walls.

» READ MORE: David Hardy retires from Boys' Latin with his vision going strong

Boys’ Latin officials and supporters said the designation would harm their school and students, most of whom are black and live in surrounding neighborhoods.

Tennant also objected to Morello and the commission referring to the building as Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. “It’s Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School," he said.

Eric Dobson, a board member for the charter school who works for the Fair Share Housing Center in New Jersey, said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is history.”

“Do you know what Philadelphia was like in 1887? Do you know what it was like for black people? Do you understand the implications of what black people were living with?” Dobson said.

During the meeting, students from Boys’ Latin sat in the audience. The commission’s chair, Robert Thomas, cited their presence and other community responses in recommending that the commission decline designation.

“I understand the social implications of what you’re talking about,” Thomas said.

Morello later told the commission she hoped its decision didn’t set a precedent.

“You’re not going to get the nominations you have right now ... knowing that they can’t carry through the mayor’s wishes on preservation,” she said.