Historic landmark set to be destroyed in Philly

By Kelsey Kastrava
October 10, 2010

Added to the historic register as a Philadelphia landmark in 2009, a vote was passed last month to permit the demolition of the Church of Assumption by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

The Catholic church, located on the corner of 11th street and Spring Gardens street, is owned by Siloam, a social service agency that offers its services to those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Siloam claims that they do not have the $1.5 million to stabilize the structure, let alone restore it.

“There is no anger in the recent vote to demo,” Wayne Spilove, chair of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, said in a phone interview. “And I’m not criticizing the board for their decision. They are all qualified, diverse, reasonable people.”

However Spilove feels that the church should remain standing. “Once the economy comes back, the church may come back if money goes into it to become restored,” Spilove said. “It would be terrible to see surface lots in place of what used to be this church.”

Since the vote, community members and neighborhood associations have filed an appeal to reconsider.

According to Spilove, the primary entity fighting for preservation of the building is Andrew Palewski, community member and contractor, who happens to specialize in historic landmarks.

“Palewski submitted the nomination to be listed on the historic register in March 2009,” Spilove said. “Then that August the owner of the church filed for financial hardship.”

“The owner was only legally obligated to protect the outside not the inside,” Palewski said in a phone interview. “The owner’s interior demolition tore apart the inside of the building.”

Palewski was involved from the beginning. His nomination to recognize the church as a historic landmark has led him to continue to be involved through the appeal of its recent notice of demolition.

Palewski resides in the West Poplar neighborhood just feet from the building and says if the church is restored, the community is considering an adaptive reuse for the building.

“A restaurant, community theater or a gathering space which is something that is kind of needed in the West Poplar and Callowhill neighborhoods,” Palewski said of the possibilities he and his community hope to see.

The Callowhill Neighborhood Association vice president, Sarah McEneaney, says she has been involved with the church since Palewski submitted it to be on the historic register.

“I got involved when Andy submitted it [the church] being on the historic register and I also attended the hardship hearing.” McEneaney said in a phone interview, of the initial hearing that addressed the owner’s financial hardship.

When asked if this is a typical situation that happens in the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, McEneaney said it was the first time the association has run in to this problem, but she is not surprised.

“Unfortunately in Philadelphia this happens often and without notice,” McEneaney said. “I think the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s role is to keep and maintain Philadelphia’s history.”

McEneaney filed the appeal last month and expects to hear back from Philadelphia’s Licenses & Inspections Review in the next few weeks.

If appealed, McEneaney doesn’t have a specific restoration use in mind. “I don’t feel like that’s for us to say,” McEneaney said. “I would like to just see it have a new life, to see it stay in the neighborhood.”

Spilove agrees, adding that the development close to this site is positive. “There is enough activity to bring life back to the corridor,” Spilove said.

“A church with such magnitude and beauty, there has to be a use for it,” Spilove said. “Money can be raised to stabilize it until a better path of use can be determined.”

The fate of the tallest structure in north Philadelphia is still to be determined.

For more information on the preservation of the Church of Assumption contact Ben Leech of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia at ben@preservationalliance.com

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Kelsey Kastrava

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