A 150-year-old church building at the corner of Thompson and Huntingdon streets in Port Richmond is historically significant and eligible to be placed on the local register of historic places, a committee of the Historical Commission ruled on Wednesday.
Neighbors worry that a historic designation could scuttle a proposed redevelopment of the property, which the Department of Licenses and Inspections declared to be imminently dangerous and in need of demolition last month. The full Commission will vote on whether to designate the building historic later this month. L&I’s ruling that the building is imminently dangerous trumps the Historical Commission’s jurisdiction in any case, but neighbors and the developers worry that a historic designation could complicate their plans. Developer Ori Feibush, who has done most of his work in Point Breeze, has proposed tearing down the church and replacing it with houses. Feibush and his attorney opposed the designation of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Messiah, on the 2600 block of East Huntingdon Street, at the committee hearing on Wednesday. So did the Olde Richmond Civic Association and their attorney. A third attorney and former candidate for City Controller, Mark Zecca, also attended the hearing and sporadically chimed in with suggestions. Staff members for State Representative John Taylor and 1st-District Councilman Mark Squilla testified against the designation.
It was an unusual scene. In the crowded room, people took turns being confused.The nomination was submitted by Andrew Fearon, who did not attend the hearing on Wednesday. It was written in part by Ken Milano, a local historian who did attend the hearing. Milano began researching the history of the property, which dates to 1848, after hearing about Feibush’s plans to demolish it earlier this year.
The Olde Richmond Civic Association (ORCA) wants Feibush to redevelop the church site, which hasn’t been used as a church since 1929. Chris Sawyer—ORCA’s zoning committee chairman, the blogger behind Philadelinquency, and a recent candidate for sheriff—personally recruited Feibush to develop the vacant property.
After the 1920s, the former church was converted into a social club with bars, bocce courts, and bowling lanes. Locals drank there for years. During the 1990s, the property was used off and on as a nightclub that would periodically get shut down. Today, neighbors see the building as a nuisance; any viable reuse of the existing building would be a detriment to the neighborhood, they say. It’s also falling down, as L&I has noted and the Historical Commission staff has affirmed.
Lawyers took turns describing its decrepitude, casting shade on its historic significance, and asking the committee not to designate it. Jon Farnham, the Historical Commission’s director, assured the neighbors that L&I’s determination is paramount, and that the building can be demolished no matter what the Commission decides. Feibush said he was concerned because the Historical Commission, if it designates the building, could theoretically require him to rebuild it after it’s demolished. Committee members said that that has never happened in the past. Feibush said it’s a risk he isn’t willing to take.
The thing is, the Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation has a remarkably clear mandate: determine whether a nominated building meets any of the criteria for historic designation. That’s it. After listening to testimony from attorneys and the public for about an hour, Jeff Cohen, an architectural historian on the committee, took a stand for the importance of expertise. The building is undeniably historically significant, he said, a monument to the development of Port Richmond. The best possible outcome, according to Cohen, would be for the developer to incorporate some elements of the existing building into whatever gets built in its place. But there’s no question as to its historic significance, Cohen said.
“We don’t want to be pushed into a corner, as a committee, of saying this is an insignificant building,” said Bruce Laverty, another member of the committee.
In the end, the committee voted 4-1 to recommend the building for historic designation. Richardson Dilworth voted against the designation, apparently agreeing with Jon Farnham that the building was so structurally compromised that it has lost its historic integrity.
The full Commission can take into account other factors aside from the building’s significance when it decides whether to place the building on the historic register.