AIDS agency clashes over historic church

AIDS agency clashes over historic church

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An historically designated Catholic church owned by a local AIDS service agency moved closer to oblivion this week, as a city advisory board recommended its demolition.

Siloam wants to raze the Church of the Assumption, 1133 Spring Garden St., because it cannot sell or rent the building — which, it claims, is in danger of collapse.

In a 3-1 vote Aug. 24, the architectural committee of the city’s Historical Commission voted to recommend its demolition.

The church was built in 1848 by noted architect Patrick Charles Keely and consecrated by St. John Neumann, then a bishop. Ten years later, the now-St. Katharine Drexel was baptized there.

Due to a dwindling number of parishioners, it was sold by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1995 and fell into disrepair.

In March 2006, Siloam purchased the church as part of a package deal that also included a rectory, convent, storefront and parking area.

In May 2009, the Historical Commission placed the church on the city’s Register of Historic Places, noting its distinctive architecture and historic ties to two saints.

Now, a bad economy coupled with a deteriorating structure make demolition unavoidable, said Kevin R. Boyle, an attorney for Siloam.

“Sooner or later the building is going to come down, either by Mother Nature or with a valid demolition permit,” Boyle told the committee.

He said Siloam’s financial shape mirrors the church’s deterioriation, and requiring the agency to do another study could be the death knell for the agency.

“[Siloam] is an entity in just as bad a shape as this building is in,” Boyle told the committee.

The organization, which provides alternative treatments for HIV/AIDS, including yoga, massage therapy, nutritional counseling and stress-reduction therapies, operates out of the rectory.

Andrew R. Palewski, an architectural preservationist, said the building could be adapted for a new use without spending the $6 million estimated by Siloam.

He questioned whether Siloam is pursuing the church’s demolition because the agency can make more money by selling the land without a building on it.

Palewski urged committee members to seek an independent assessment of the building’s structural integrity.

It was Palewski who nominated the church for its historic designation last year, and helped gather a neighborhood petition with more than 400 signatures in support of the preservation effort.

But Joseph A. Lukach, siloam executive director, said the agency sincerely tried to sell the church. “I’d love to sell the building,” Lukach told the committee. “I don’t have an agenda to take down a church.”

Committee member Shawn Evans was receptive to Palewski’s appeal. Evans, an architect, said he wants a detailed, independent analysis of the building’s structural integrity and a cost-estimate for its stabilization.

“It’s wrong to make a decision based on the quality of information that we’ve been given,” Evans said. “We’re giving a death sentence to a remarkable structure.”

He said the study would cost about $2,500, and expressed hope that one would be undertaken before the 13-member Historical Commission votes on the matter, possibly as early as next month.

Committee member Suzanne Pentz disagreed with Evans.

“I don’t see this as a reasonable building to try to rehabilitate,” said Pentz. “A more thorough investigation isn’t justified: It isn’t going to change the raw picture.”

Michael Barmash, a Realtor for Siloam, said one potential buyer was interested in simply stabilizing the structure, but a local bank refused to finance the effort.

“The spigot [of financing] is shut off,” Barmash said.

Committee members noted that the economy might improve, but Siloam officials said they couldn’t sell the building even when the economy was thriving.

Much discussion focused on whether Siloam hurt the building’s marketability by allegedly neglecting the exterior and actively dismantling the interior.

Lukach maintained the agency had a right to remove and sell interior objects, such as the church’s pews. Siloam isn’t in a financial position to seal and repair the exterior of the structure, he added.

John A. Gallery, executive director of The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, questioned why the commission didn’t act last year when it learned of the building’s condition.

But committee members said requiring Siloam to make safety repairs could have moved the dispute into court, and the demolition could have occurred even sooner.

After the meeting, committee members said they had mixed feelings about the dispute.

“I try to be realistic,” said Pentz, an engineer. “Not every historic building can be saved. Yes, with enough money, engineering problems can be solved. But I don’t believe this building can be reasonably rehabilitated.”

Palewski said he’s disappointed by the vote, but not defeated.

“Obviously, I wasn’t happy with the outcome of the meeting,” Palewski told PGN. “This has always been an uphill struggle. But I’m still optimistic that — despite all the interior destruction that’s taken place within the Church of the Assumption — it’s still possible to prevent its demolition.”

Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.

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