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Little-known architect of threatened church to be focus of NYC symposium

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Patrick Charles Keely designed more than 700 religious buildings, including Philadelphia’s Church of the Assumption.

 
While the battle to save the Church of the Assumption from the wrecking ball grows more desperate, the man who designed the building will be the focus of a symposium next month in New York City.
 
Patrick Charles Keely designed more than 700 churches and ecclesiastical buildings in the United and States and Canada from the 1840s through the 1890s – most of which still stand. But he has been relatively unknown in architectural circles, according to the Monuments Conservancy, which will host the symposium on March 22.
 
The church at 1133 Spring Garden Street is of particular significance, explained Edward Furey, of Enfield, Conn., the founder of the Keely Society, which is dedicated to documenting the architect’s life and work.
 
The Church of the Assumption was one of four churches designed by Keely in 1848, the first year of his professional output. Two of those churches have since been razed, and the other, in New York City, was partly demolished but then rescued six years ago.
 
The Philadelphia church, with its distinctive red and green spires, was a stepping stone in Keely’s early career toward his penchant for Gothic design, Furey said. “It’s a building that is spectacular even from a distance. My God, what a loss” it would be if it was demolished, he said.
 
On Friday Jan. 11, 2013, the Philadelphia Historical Commission announced that its members unanimously affirmed the validity of a permit to demolish the historic church issued to the building’s owner last fall. The Commission issued its opinion at the request of the Board of L&I Review, which granted a stay of demolition late last year. In a hearing earlier this week, the Board ruled that it would maintain jurisdiction of the permit while it sought the Commission’s input; it will make the final decision on whether to lift the stay and let the demolition commence.
 
Beyond its design, the church is a symbol for the Callowhill neighborhood of “moral values and a safe place”  and “gives a historical significance to the area,” Furey said.
 
It was also a church with great importance to the Catholic Church. John Neumann helped consecrate the Church of the Assumption, and Katharine Drexel was baptized there. Both became Catholic saints.
 
Keely was recognized for his architectural vision during his lifetime. In 1884, he received the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal, which is presented to an American Catholic who has ennobled the arts and sciences. His work included cathedrals, churches and institutional buildings that became models for religious architecture, including the design of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, said Furey, who will be the keynote speaker at the March symposium.
 
The symposium, which is free and open to the public, will be held at the Time & Life Building, Rockefeller Center, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, in the Henry Luce Room, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The speakers will be national experts in the fields of art, history, conservation of the decorative arts, psychology and photography.
 
To reserve a seat, call 212-764-5645, ext. 10, or email .
 
For more information, visit www.monumentsconservancy.org.
 
Check out the Keely Society
 
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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