Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

As Philadelphia advances streetscape plan for Spring Garden, historic buildings fall to neglect | Inga Saffron

Spring Garden Street can’t be transformed into a walkable, urbane boulevard without keeping its landmark buildings intact.

Philadelphia's Church of the Assumption at 11th and Spring Garden Street, where the Catholic saint Katharine Drexel attended Mass, has been crumbling since it was listed on the historic register in 2009.
Philadelphia's Church of the Assumption at 11th and Spring Garden Street, where the Catholic saint Katharine Drexel attended Mass, has been crumbling since it was listed on the historic register in 2009.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

What if Spring Garden Street actually lived up to its name? Instead of an 80-foot-wide expanse that cuts a dreary and dangerous furrow across Philadelphia’s midsection, what if there were sidewalks edged with rain gardens, tree-shaded bike lanes, and planted medians? What if the vehicular mosh pits at the Broad and Ridge intersections were reorganized into orderly crossings? What if neglected touchstones from the city’s past, like the Reading Railroad station and the Church of the Assumption, were repaired and reoccupied?

OK, you have to be a wide-eyed optimist to imagine such a transformation in Philadelphia right now. Spring Garden is just one of a contingent of broad, crosstown streets — Washington, Vine, Lehigh, Girard — that have been allowed to devolve into brutal speedways, where pedestrians scurry for refuge and cyclists are constantly forced to defend their sliver of roadway. Efforts to improve those arteries have moved at the speed of a traffic-choked highway.

But Spring Garden has one advantage those other east-west boulevards lack: The street figures in an ambitious national plan to create a coastal version of the Appalachian Trail called the East Coast Greenway. Because it is designated as the connector street that will link the Schuylkill and Delaware River portions of the trail, Spring Garden is eligible for a major reconstruction and greening project. While the improvements could run $55 million, the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure plan increases the odds the federal government will cover Philadelphia’s costs. Rob Armstrong, who manages trail programs for the managing director’s office, told me it’s possible that design work could start before the end of the year.

His division, the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, & Sustainability (a.k.a. OTIS), is keen to get going. Besides improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, the trail promises to give the city an economic boost, by encouraging the creation of small hotels and amenities along the greenway route. If the federal money does come through, it will take two years to complete the design and engineering, then a few more years for construction. In the best-case scenario, the earliest we would see a transformed Spring Garden Street is 2025.

» READ MORE: Philadelphians want protected bike lanes and pedestrian safety on Spring Garden Street

But the way things are going, Spring Garden could be a far less appealing place by then. Even as OTIS advances a makeover of the street’s infrastructure, the buildings that give the boulevard its distinctive character are in crisis. At least three landmarks could be gone by 2025 unless the city’s preservation and building departments intervene now: the Spring Garden train station, the Church of the Assumption, and the Lawsonia building.

Their role in Philadelphia’s history isn’t the only reason they are crucial to the success of Spring Garden. Back in the ’60s, the street lost several blocks of fine townhouses and institutional buildings when the eastern end was leveled to create a light industrial district to serve I-95, and today it is a tattered place. Without these surviving landmarks, Spring Garden would be just a generic highway. Yet the Kenney administration has done little more than bemoan the loss of these landmarks.

Right now, the Church of the Assumption, which dates from 1849, is the only one of the three listed on the city’s Historic Register. But the building, which anchors the block between Ridge and 11th Streets, has been through multiple, near-death experiences since that designation in 2009. In the last few months, the deterioration seems to have accelerated. More stained-glass windows are broken, leaving the interior open to vandals. It’s holding on for dear life, but the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections hasn’t hit the owner with a violation since 2018.

» READ MORE: Changing Skyline: Distressing fate of a church

This ochre-hued sanctuary isn’t just another pretty building. The church is associated with the two Catholic saints to come out of Philadelphia: Bishop John Neumann and Katharine Drexel. Neumann ordered the church’s construction and Drexel attended services there. Assumption’s owner, John Wei, insists he has plans to convert it to apartments, yet no progress has been made since he acquired the church a decade ago.

The situation is even more dire at the Spring Garden train station, at the corner of Ninth Street. That little building, which hugs the remaining portion of the Reading Viaduct, has been vacant since the commuter rail line was put underground in 1989. It has long been derelict, but the combination of the pandemic and the opioid crisis has turned it into a major homeless encampment. In response, a local developer filed a court motion in January to gain control of the building under the state’s Act 135 law. The legal action was intended to prod the Reading Co. to clean up the area.

Instead, Reading decided to remove the station’s upper story, which opens onto the viaduct. Demolition began Tuesday. Once a railroad operator, Reading has evolved into a billion-dollar entertainment and real estate colossus. The cost of cleaning up the train station wouldn’t have even been a rounding error for the company, which recently blew $58 million converting New York’s old Tammany Hall into a banquet facility. Demolishing part of the Spring Garden Station is pure spite.

For years, Reading has resisted the city’s efforts to negotiate a deal for the viaduct. “Reading International is fully aware of the city’s desire for the station to be preserved,” a city spokesperson wrote in an e-mailed statement. “The city has communicated that to Reading for several years, but for the last two years, Reading has been largely unresponsive.”

It’s great to know that the Kenney administration thinks the station is worth saving. But officials can’t just throw up their hands and accept defeat simply because Reading is behaving despicably. Instead, it’s been left to a local developer, Arts + Craft Holdings, to battle Reading in court.

The third building under threat, the Lawsonia, which sits directly across from the Church of the Assumption, had a less heralded role in the city’s history, but its presence is just as crucial to maintaining Spring Garden Street’s integrity. Built in 1929 for the Woodward-Wanger plumbing supply company, the long, two-story structure is a simple but handsome Georgian design, a reminder of a time when industrial buildings were imbued with real architecture.

During the boom years of the early 2000s, a development company owned by the actor Will Smith proposed adding a couple of floors to the Lawsonia and turning it into apartments. That would have been a great outcome, but his company was never able to pull it off. The building was sold, and the new owner, Maplewood LLC, said it had never been informed that the Lawsonia was placed on the historic register. In April, Maplewood convinced the Historical Commission to remove the designation. Once again the city has effectively enabled the destruction of a Spring Garden building.

The effort to make Spring Garden live up to its name was launched more than a decade ago by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. It saw that the street could be more than a barren gully separating Center City and the neighborhoods of Chinatown North, Callowhill, Northern Liberties, and Fairmount. Lizzie Hessek, PEC’s trail manager, told me the group understood back then that the street improvements would also stabilize Spring Garden’s surviving buildings.

A decade later, the environmental council’s vision for a greener Spring Garden is finally about to happen. The irony is that it is easier to fix a street than to maintain the buildings that make it a real and meaningful place.

This story was updated Wednesday to note that demolition of the Reading building has begun.