Historic Church of Assumption spared, for now

The 163-year-old church, with its pair of tower­ing spires at 11th and Spring Garden streets, was tem­por­ar­ily saved from the wreck­ing ball last week.

To bor­row a phrase from Mark Twain, re­ports of the de­mise of the Church of the As­sump­tion might have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.

Also ex­ag­ger­ated are de­clar­a­tions that the church is out of troubled wa­ters and headed for bet­ter days.

In­deed, there is little that can be as­sumed about the fate of the Church of As­sump­tion.

The 163-year-old church, with its pair of tower­ing spires at 11th and Spring Garden streets, was tem­por­ar­ily saved from the wreck­ing ball last week, thanks to a un­an­im­ous vote by the Re­view Board of the city’s Li­censes and In­spec­tions de­part­ment.

Yet, the church, con­sec­rated by Phil­adelphia’s St. John Neu­mann and where St. Kath­er­ine Drexel was bap­tized in 1858, is hardly out of the woods yet and the cycle of de­moli­tion threats and re­prieves might well con­tin­ue un­til the build­ing is un­der new own­er­ship or fi­nally re­duced to rubble.

Most re­cently, the L&I vote, which passed quickly and without much re­ac­tion from a crowd gathered in the hear­ing room at 1515 Arch St. last Tues­day, provided time for rep­res­ent­at­ives of a loc­al com­munity group — the Cal­lowhill Neigh­bor­hood As­so­ci­ation — with ad­di­tion­al time to find a new buy­er for the prop­erty.

The cur­rent own­ers of the build­ing, Siloam Well­ness, a non-profit ser­vice as­so­ci­ation for the HIV-AIDS com­munity, has long planned to tear the build­ing down be­cause it would cost too much to re­hab­il­it­ate.

De­bate over the fu­ture of the church has raged for years.

The build­ing es­sen­tially has been aban­doned for at least 15 years — Siloam op­er­ates out of a small rect­ory build­ing ad­ja­cent to the struc­ture — and de­moli­tion plans date back to at least be­fore 2009, when the build­ing at 1123-33 Spring Garden St. was first saved after be­ing put on the Phil­adelphia Re­gister of His­tor­ic Places and the His­tor­ic­al Com­mis­sion placed a his­tor­ic mark­er at the site.

Then, with a prop­erty value of about $600,000, Siloam re­ques­ted the build­ing be de­mol­ished, cit­ing fin­an­cial hard­ship.

Pre­vi­ously re­por­ted re­hab­il­it­a­tion es­tim­ates ranged from $1.5 mil­lion to more than $5 mil­lion. In 2010, the His­tor­ic Com­mis­sion gran­ted Siloam the right to de­mol­ish the struc­ture.

Yet, last week, the L&I board voted in fa­vor of the CNA’s ap­peal to halt de­moli­tion of the build­ing.

C’Anne An­der­son, a board mem­ber of the CNA who was on hand for the hear­ing last week, said she was ex­cited by the fur­ther op­por­tun­ity to save the struc­ture and noted that she be­lieves a buy­er is lined up for the prop­erty.

“That’s the last piece of what was once a beau­ti­ful av­en­ue,” she said after the board voted. “We have a very ser­i­ous buy­er.”

That buy­er, The Clay Stu­dio, a non-profit ceram­ic arts or­gan­iz­a­tion based in Old City, might not be as ser­i­ous as An­der­son be­lieves.

Ac­cord­ing to Amy Sarner Wil­li­ams, pres­id­ent and CEO of the Clay Stu­dio, the re­ports last week that claimed her group was eager to pur­chase the prop­erty were worded “a little strong.”

“There is no of­fer what­so­ever,” she said dur­ing a May 18 in­ter­view. “It’s in­ter­est­ing to us, but that’s about it … We have made no com­mit­ment to the place.”

With es­tim­ates for re­hab­il­it­a­tion of that build­ing vary­ing wildly, Sarner Wil­li­ams said be­fore they take any fur­ther steps, The Clay Stu­dio would want to get an in­de­pend­ent ap­prais­al of the work that needs to be done and the costs that might be in­curred.

“There are num­bers be­ing thrown out from all sides,” she said. “It’s all vague.”

When the Arch­diocese of Phil­adelphia aban­doned the struc­ture 15 years ago, it re­moved stained glass win­dows, the al­tar and many oth­er not­able and valu­able ele­ments of the build­ing.

Siloam, Sarner Wil­li­ams said, re­moved fur­ther ma­ter­i­als from the in­teri­or of the church after it bought the build­ing in 2006, leav­ing the struc­ture gut­ted.

“They ripped everything out of there,” she said. “It’s hor­rible what they have done … If that’s struc­tur­ally un­sound, nobody is go­ing to do any­thing to it.”

Sarner Wil­li­ams did say that the Clay Stu­dio needs to ex­pand from its cur­rent loc­a­tion at 139 N. 2nd St., but de­clined to provide a timetable in which the or­gan­iz­a­tion would need to make a de­cision.

“We need to do something,” she said. “But, noth­ing is any­where near fi­nal.”

Yet, when dis­cuss­ing the church, An­der­son of the CNA, said that while the Clay Stu­dio was the “most ser­i­ous” po­ten­tial buy­er work­ing with the com­munity group, there were oth­er people in­ter­ested in the build­ing and the CNA plans to con­tin­ue ef­forts to save the struc­ture.

“We are pleased with today’s de­cision and we will keep after it,” she said Tues­day. “We want to see it saved, whatever needs to hap­pen.”

Siloam’s law­yer, Kev­in Boyle of Cen­ter City-based law firm Strad­ley Ro­non Stevens and Young, didn’t reply to calls about the church’s fu­ture.

However, Boyle was quoted else­where last week say­ing he be­lieves his cli­ent in­tends to ap­peal the de­cision to the Pennsylvania Com­mon­wealth Court. 

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­man@bsmphilly.com 

You can reach at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.

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