Preserving Pennsylania: A Journey Through the Last 20 Years, Part 16

Preservation Pennsylvania has released their “Pennsylvania At-Risk: Twenty-Year Retrospective of Pennsylvania’s Endangered Historic Properties, Where Are They Now” edition. It’s a fascinating look at preservation in action and we’ll be posting a look at each property in a series of posts over the next several months.

Preservation Pennsylvania established the annual Pennsylvania At Risk list in 1992, making us the first statewide preservation organization in the United States to have an annual roster of endangered historic properties. Since 1992, we have listed and worked to preserve more than 200 endangered historic resources, including individual buildings, historic districts and thematic resources statewide. For 2012, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of our organization, we are presenting a 20-year retrospective edition of Pennsylvania At Risk. In this issue, we revisit some of the amazing historic places across the Commonwealth, some of which have been rescued from extinction through preservation and rehabilitation efforts, and others that still need our help.

Approximately 18% of Pennsylvania’s At Risk properties have been lost, having been demolished or substantially altered. Another 32% have been saved or are in a condition or situation where the identified threat no longer poses a problem for the historic property. Approximately 50% of the 201 At Risk resources remain in danger, or we have not been able to confirm their current status as either saved or lost.

By monitoring these properties over the past 20 years and working with individuals and organizations trying to preserve them, we have learned many valuable lessons. Those lessons are called out throughout this publication.


2009 — Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Philadelphia

Virgin Mary

The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a Gothic-revival-style masonry church designed by Patrick Charles Keely. Keely designed over 600 Catholic churches in North America, but this one – constructed between 1848 and 1849 – is the earliest surviving example of his ecclesiastical designs. The large brownstone building with slate roof and twin copper steeples is a landmark in the surrounding community. After 145 years of worship in the church, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed the building in 1995. Down to less than 50 parishioners, they were unable to justify the expense required to repair the leaking roof and replace faulty wiring. The Archdiocese removed many of the stained glass windows, the baptismal font and two side altars following the deconsecration. After continuing to rent the adjacent rectory since the church closed, Siloam purchased the Church of the Assumption along with the rectory, convent, storefront, a paved play area and parking lots from the Archdiocese in 2006. Siloam is a spirituality and wellness center for people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. In 2007, Siloam began to explore the possibility of expanding their services beyond the rectory and into the other buildings they had acquired. After receiving a rehabilitation estimate of approximately $5 million, they applied for a permit to demolish the church in 2009. Since 2009, the exterior of the church has been protected by a local preservation ordinance. As a result, the Philadelphia Historical Commission denied Siloam’s request for a demolition permit. Siloam appealed that decision, filing a financial hardship application. In 2010, the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted to allow demolition based on Siloam’s financial hardship application. Not willing to lose this important landmark, the Callowhilll Neighborhood Association (CNA) appealed the decision of the Historical Commission. The city’s Board of License and Inspection Review (L&I) overturned the Commission’s decision in May 2011, but Siloam then appealed that decision to the Court of Common Pleas, which overturned the L&I decision and reinstated the Historical Commission’s demolition approval. In the meantime, Siloam continued to perform interior demolition and remove and sell important features on the interior of the building, including the pews and other architectural details. Through the battle over the church, they argued that changes to the interior rendered the building insignificant and that the building now had no value, and could not be sold. Fortunately, in July 2012, this argument was proven false when a local developer paid $1.12 million for the property – including the church, rectory, convent and storefront. Despite the fact that the new owner stated that he planned to “make the neighbourhood happy,” a demolition permit was posted on the building on November 31, 2012 allowing demolition to begin on December 11, 2012. This permit was issued even though CNA has appealed the October 2012 Court of Common Pleas decision and the matter is pending in Commonwealth Court.  CNA responded by: 1) filing an appeal to the L&I board; and 2) filing for an emergency stay of demolition in Commonwealth Court. The L&I board granted a temporary stay of demolition, and will review the appeal at 3 p.m. on January 8, 2013. Clearly, this historic church remains imminently threatened.