In a 5-0 vote Jan. 8, the city’s Board of License and Inspection Review continued to block the demolition of the old Church of the Assumption, but also requested an “opinion” about the controversy from the city’s Historical Commission.
The Gothic-style church is located at 1123-33 Spring Garden St. in the Callowhill section of the city.
Built in 1848-49 by Patrick Charles Keely, the church has ties to two local saints, Katharine Drexel and John Neumann.
In October, Common Pleas Judge Idee C. Fox approved the church’s demolition, noting that it would be a hardship for the HIV/AIDS agency Siloam to maintain the dilapidated structure.
But three months prior to that ruling, Siloam sold the church and two adjacent buildings to developer John Wei.
Last month, the review board issued a temporary stay of demolition after Wei obtained a demolition permit from L&I.
Carl S. Primavera, an attorney for Wei, told the review board Jan. 8 that his client is acting responsibly by seeking to demolish the church.
“The building is unsafe,” Primavera said. “It’s a very, very difficult situation.”
Primavera also said the safety of the many daily travelers along Spring Garden Street is at risk if the church isn’t demolished.
He added that preserving the building as a historic structure isn’t realistic.
“If someone could save this beautiful building, they would have,” Primavera said.
But Samuel C. Stretton, an attorney for the Callowhill Neighborhood Association, said the church is an iconic structure.
He noted that the city’s Historical Commission placed the building on the city’s Register of Historic Places in 2009.
Stretton emphasized to the board that Siloam was able to sell the church, despite its earlier claims that it was unable to do so. But Primavera responded by noting that the church was bought as part of a package deal, and that it has no value.
Stretton also reminded the board that experts have estimated it would cost about $150,000 to stabilize the structure.
“There’s nothing to prevent Mr. Wei from making the needed repairs,” Stretton said. “Mr. Wei bought the property knowing full well the problems.”
Wei did not attend the hearing and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Stretton urged the review board to remand the matter back to the Historical Commission for further consideration.
While the board agreed to do that, it did not require the commission to hold a formal hearing on Wei’s demolition request.
The matter also remains pending in state Commonwealth Court, where CNA is challenging the demolition approval Siloam received in Common Pleas Court.
If the matter gets referred to the higher court, Stretton asked the board to consider blocking the demolition while that litigation ensues.
After the hearing, neighborhood activist Andrew R. Palewski said he’s aware of a potential buyer for the church.
He did not identify the individual, but said he gave the person’s name to Primavera.
Palewski also said the person has agreed to accept liability for the church, and to pay for a subdivision — so the church can be bought apart from Wei’s other buildings.
But Michael Barmash, a sales agent for Wei, said Wei wants to sell the entire property, not just the church.
“Every time we come up with a solution, Mr. Wei finds a way to create another problem,” Palewski said.
At presstime, the Historical Commission was expected to consider the matter at its next meeting, scheduled for 9 a.m. Jan. 11 at 1515 Arch St., 18th floor.
“No decision has been made regarding the handling of 1123-33 Spring Garden St., the former Church of the Assumption, matter,” said Jonathan E. Farnham, executive director of the commission, in an email.
Siloam continues to provide HIV/AIDS services in an old Catholic rectory next to the church while it seeks a new location.