PlanPhilly

Reprieve granted for historic Spring Garden church

    • Reprieve granted for historic Spring Garden church
      Reprieve granted for historic Spring Garden church

Hold the wrecking ball.

The Church of the Assumption received a pre-holiday gift Tuesday from the Board of Licenses & Inspections Review, which granted a stay on the demolition permit pulled by the building’s owner.

The lawyer representing the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, Samuel Stretton, had made an emergency plea last week to the BLIR to prevent the demolition of the building at 1123 Spring Garden St. The stay was granted by a unanimous vote of the board on the same day the demolition permit became effective.

An appeal of the permit will be heard by the BLIR on Jan. 8 at 3 p.m.

A request for a stay had also been filed with the Commonwealth Court, which denied it, citing a lack of jurisdiction over the new owner, John Wei, a Chinatown developer. 

The BLIR has provided the few rays of hope for the historic church in recent years. It had previously overturned the decision of the Philadelphia Historical Commission that granted the former owner of the church, Siloam, a social service agency, permission to raze the building based on financial hardship. At the next hearing the L&I Review Board will weigh whether or not the Historical Commission’s finding of financial hardship back in 2010 travels with the property – as the City contends – or if that finding is no longer valid because that the property has changed ownership.

Wei purchased the building and the adjacent properties in July for more than $1 million. At the time he expressed the desire to preserve the structure, which was designed in 1848 by Patrick Charles Keely, the nation’s most prolific ecclesiastical architect of the period. The building is also a religious landmark because it was consecrated by John Neumann and was the site of Katharine Drexel’s baptism. Both became Catholic saints. The building was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2009.

The CNA met with Wei, of MJ Central Investment LP, and offered to help him find a new use for the property. 

Wei told PlanPhilly on Saturday that he does not know what he will do with the site, and he is willing to meet with members of the community again.

But he said the immediate concern is safety. “The towers could fall at any time. If it falls down and kills somebody, who will take the liability?” he said. “I like it, too, but no one would pay to fix it. I don’t have the money to fix it.”

Prior to Tuesday's meeting Wei said he, his wife, Mika He, and business associate, Wing Luk, initially hoped to redevelop the other buildings – a school, rectory, and convent – for residential and/or commercial uses and leave the church aside for the time being. They didn’t want to demolish the church, but they did not have specific redevelopment plans for it in mind. But Wei said he was not able to proceed with work on the other buildings without clearing the existing code violations on the church.

“The city gives two options,” Wei explained to the board. “One, you demo. Two, you fix.”

Despite Wei’s concerns, the board voted to hold a full hearing on the demolition permit issue at the earliest date available, January 8.

After the preliminary hearing Sarah McEneaney, Callowhill Neighborhood Association president, said she was “very happy” with the temporary stay of demolition, and hoped to continue conversations with John Wei about different alternatives that might lead to the church’s long-term preservation.

Siloam received estimates of $5 million to $7 million to restore the church building. 

Last October, Court of Common Pleas Judge Idee C. Fox ruled that the BLIR had been wrong to overturn the Historical Commission’s decision to grant Siloam a permit to demolish the church.

The court said the evidence—Siloam’s attempts to sell the building, and a Community Design Collaborative estimate of the cost of rehab—showed that the church is in such poor condition that it has no value on the real estate market and cannot be adapted for reuse.

Eyes on the Street Editor Ashley Hahn contributed to this report. Contact the writer at



About the author

Alan Jaffe, Historic preservation reporter

ajaffe@planphilly.com

B.A., Temple University

Alan Jaffe writes about historic preservation issues for PlanPhilly and focuses on often overlooked built landscapes in his column, “Look Up!” He
was a writer and editor in the newspaper industry for nearly 30 years, including eight at the Philadelphia Inquirer and nine at the South Jersey Courier-Post. He is currently the director of communications for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He is also an antiques writer and collector and the author of “J. Chein & Co.: A Collector’s Guide to an American Toymaker.”


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