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Mother Bethel members pray for historic foresight over apartment proposal

A Society Hill church and its neighbors prayed for help in altering a nearby apartment project.

Members of Mother Bethel AME Church say an apartment project clashes with the historic character of Society Hill.
Members of Mother Bethel AME Church say an apartment project clashes with the historic character of Society Hill.Read more

THE PHILADELPHIA Historical Commission didn't heed its own architectural committee when it voted to approve plans to use gray stucco for a proposed apartment building across the street from the historic Mother Bethel AME Church in Society Hill.

So last night, church members and neighbors, including members of the Society Hill Civic Association, took their protest to a higher authority.

Outside the church at 6th and Lombard streets, Mother Bethel's pastor, the Rev. Mark Tyler, led a prayer vigil asking that the commission follow the right path toward historical integrity.

"Some of our members prayed that the commission will exercise better judgment and reverse its decision," Tyler said.

The apartment building is planned for what is now a parking lot at 6th and Addison. In general, residents assert the building's gray brick-and-stucco design, including large bay windows that overhang the sidewalk, clashes with the historic, redbrick character of the area.

"It's an historical district," said Lorna Katz-Lawson, an architect who chairs the Society Hill Civic Association's Zoning and Historical Preservation Committee. "The whole point of having an historic district is to have a certain support for respecting scale and feel of the buildings around you."

Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1793 after Bishop Richard Allen bought the land for the church in 1791.

Tyler conceded that the building's design is attractive.

"It looks like something you would see in Aspen at a ski lodge, or one of the other areas in Philadelphia that have been gentrified with more modern buildings," he said. "But it doesn't fit in with the historic character of the community. It would be a beautiful building somewhere else. But it's hideous where they want to put it."

Records show that property owners Pamela Ying Jin and James Nga Kuk Li want to build the four-story, six-unit apartment building.

The project's architect, Stephan Potts, said the project hews to the commission's guidelines, noting that new buildings "should not attempt to create a false sense of history by building something new that appears to belong to another period."

Jonathan Farham, the commission's executive director, wrote in an email:

"The Architectural Committee offers nonbinding, advisory recommendations. The Commission is free to accept or reject those recommendations. . . . In this case, the Committee recommended denial of the original design, but also offered suggestions to the architect for improving that design. The architect implemented those suggestions and the revised design was presented to the Historical Commission. Therefore, the design that Committee reviewed and rejected was not the design that the Commission reviewed and approved."

Residents say the changes were minimal.

Larry Spector, who has lived in the neighborhood for 28 years, testified at the commission's Aug. 9 meeting that the new building's rooftop air-conditioning compressors "face right into the stained-glass windows of Mother Bethel Church."

"It's just not right," he said.