Let's face it, historic buildings get torn down all the time in Philadelphia, a city with more fine architecture than anyone knows what to do with. But not many of the casualties are under the special protection of the city's Historical Commission. That's what makes the threatened demolition of the Church of the Assumption so troubling.
In 2009, the future of the North Philadelphia landmark looked, if not exactly rosy, then quite hopeful. The 19th-century church where the Catholic saint Katharine Drexel was baptized had just earned a place on the commission's selective Historic Register, the strongest safeguard against demolition. An art dealer had expressed interest in purchasing the complex to use as her office. By most accounts, the ornate Gothic interior, with its ribbed arches and stained-glass windows, was still intact.
Just three years later, last rites are being said for the Church of the Assumption, the oldest building on the once-elegant Spring Garden Street. Its interior has been trashed. A succession of owners have pressed for complete demolition, and they've been backed up by none other than the Historical Commission. Only an 11th-hour reprieve on Tuesday by an obscure city agency - the Licenses and Inspections Review Board - kept its current owner, developer John Wei, from proceeding with plans to knock down the ocher-colored sanctuary this week.
In a city that prides itself on its commitment to preservation, as well as its rich Catholic heritage, why is everyone so eager to tear down a building with so much history and physical presence? It seems that the soaring church has become just another piece of valuable real estate, worth more money as raw ground than as a living building.
No one disputes the building's historic bona fides. The Church of the Assumption played a role in the lives of not one, but two of Philadelphia's Catholic saints. It was St. John Neumann who authorized construction in 1848, by the noted church architect Patrick Charles Keely. A decade later, Katharine Drexel was attending Mass in the sanctuary, along with other affluent members of the city's ethnic German community.
It is also a striking work of architecture, with a distinctive facade flanked by a pair of slim, copper-tipped spires that are visible across the skyline. But like dozens of other religious buildings in Philadelphia, the church fell into an unfortunate limbo in recent decades as the neighborhood lost population.
The church's congregation depleted, the Philadelphia archdiocese desanctified the building in 2006 and sold it to a Catholic nonprofit called Siloam, which operates on a budget of less than $1 million a year.
Why the tiny group bought the church has never been fully explained. Siloam had been a tenant in a rectory office, providing counseling services to people with AIDS, when the archdiocese offered it the church and associated buildings. The price was $800,000.
Siloam thought it might partner with another group to run a medical clinic and jumped at the chance. But, as its directors have testified, the nonprofit soon realized that it was in over its head. The church spires needed serious repairs, estimated at more than $1 million. It was far more than Siloam could afford. Fearing liability, it decided to demolish the building instead.
That's where things get murky.
Once buildings are listed on Philadelphia's Historic Register, they can't be demolished unless the owner can prove financial hardship. In the course of lengthy hearings before the Historical Commission in late 2010, Siloam made its case with the help of Kevin Boyle, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer who has worked extensively for the archdiocese and is a member of the archbishop's cabinet. The thrust of the argument was that Siloam was stuck: It was too poor to fix the church, but the building was impossible to sell because there was no economically feasible way to reuse it.
To city preservationists, it seemed that Siloam was choosing demolition as a first resort. They noted the church had been on the market only a few months - hardly enough time to sell a house, never mind an unusual building like a church. Siloam's real estate agents made only a token effort to seek out potential buyers.
The Historical Commission, which oversees 22,000 registered buildings, has granted hardship demolitions only a dozen times in the last 15 years, and it clearly struggled with the decision. When the vote ended in a tie, chairman Sam Sherman cast the decisive vote in favor of demolition.
Siloam never carried out the demolition, in part because the Callowhill Neighborhood Association filed an appeal. But while the case was wending its way through the courts, Siloam found a buyer for the complex.
In July, it sold the church and rectory for $1.12 million to Wei, a local developer who has converted several buildings in the Loft District to apartments.
Wei's original intention, he said in an interview, was to turn the complex's other buildings into apartments while he searched for a new use for the church. But when he applied for a permit to work on the apartments, he says he was told that he would first have to address the code violations at the church. Unwilling to spend the money now, he, too, chose demolition.
The long-term chances of saving the church are not good. The L&I review board, which acts as an appellate court to the Historical Commission, will take up Wei's demolition request again Jan. 8. Preservationists argue that he cannot inherit Siloam's hardship, and needs to make his own case to the commission.
Even if that's so, he will likely get his demolition permit in the end. The commission's staff director, Jon Farnham, told me the hardship issue has been decided: Hardship "runs with the land," no matter who owns the building, he said. That view was backed up by Andrew Ross, of the city law department.
The eagerness with which the church's various owners and the city have embraced demolition is not just unseemly, it also sends a disheartening message about Philadelphia's dozens of other vacant religious buildings. If a certified historic landmark like the Church of the Assumption can't be saved, can any survive?