Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Philadelphia and Historic Preservation: The Case of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral

3723-25 Chestnut Street in 1969, with the Tower of the Philadelphia Cathedral
(Episcopal Church of the Saviour) in the Background
(City of Philadelphia Photo @

If you want to get my dander up, talk to me about the criminally mismanaged Phillies, their waste of a $180 million payroll and apparent disregard for the legion of fans who have sold out more than two years worth of consecutive games.  Talk to me about the current style of play in the NBA, star-driven to the point where it has devolved into glorified street ball.  Talk to me about the quality of popular "music" today's youth listen to in disconnected form on the radio and internet.  Or talk to me about the crass commercialism and aesthetic philistinism that has resulted in the destruction of huge swaths of the historic fabrics of America's great cities.

Just last night I looked for an hour or so at a very interesting website picturing the architectural sea change that has engulfed Los Angeles over the past century, transforming it from a small city of characteristic Italianate, Victorian, and Beaux-Arts buildings to the sprawling, auto-centric, architecturally sterile, pedestrian-unfriendly behemoth it is today.  I couldn't help but be overwhelmed with an empathetic melancholy.

My immediate impulse was to be thankful I was from Philadelphia, the building stock of which has recently been described by architecture critic Thomas de Monchaux as "pound for pound the country's best."  Upon further reflection, however, I realized that Philadelphia, perhaps more than any other great American city, has taken its heritage for granted.  Of course, the city is proud of its key role in the history of the nation's founding and in its preserved treasures from that period.  But any look at books containing pictures from the city's past tells the true story of a typically American city that will sell its soul for money, commerce, and "progress."  Most of Frank Furness's idiosyncratic masterpieces have met an inglorious end at the hands of the wrecking ball.  Broad Street Station, bettered only by the old and likewise no-longer-extant Penn Station in New York, was unceremoniously demolished in the early '50s, to be replaced by the unspeakably awful, modernist Penn Center office towers.  The city's unparalleled inventory of industrial buildings has been decimated by neglect, abandonment,  and arson.  And, worst of all, its ancient ecclesiastical architecture has been "under siege" for some time now, most notably in the rapidly-gentrifying Graduate Hospital neighborhood ("Southwest Center City"), but also in such down-on-their-heels neighborhoods as Norris Square in Kensington, where the St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church, built in 1872, has recently been leveled in order for the Square's civic association to construct "affordable housing" — and that in a neighborhood with more than its share of vacant lots.

This is the context in which last week's decision by the city's Historical Commission to allow the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral to demolish two historically certified brownstone townhouses it owns (picture above) must be understood.   [an aside: as my brother asked, What is a historical commission for if it can't protect listed buildings?  A very good question, especially considering the Philly Commission's demonstrable impotence to protect even the greatest of structures because of an overwhelming tendency to capitulate to monied interests(case in point: the 1848-49 Church of the Assumption at 1123 Spring Garden Street, saved only by massive public outcry)].  What is proposed to take their place?  Surprise, surprise: a 25-story apartment, office, and retail tower on their footprint, to be connected with the historic church via a glass passageway.

Rendering of Proposed Tower, BLT Architects

The argument given by the cathedral's Dean, the Rev. Judith Sullivan, is that the demolition and construction are necessary to "save the cathedral," in particular the 1855, Romanesque bell tower, from structural collapse (though some engineers have questioned the supposed sorry state of the tower).  Yet, for good reason, the cathedral isn't claiming "hardship" as the basis of their plea.  The church has an annual endowment of $600,000, though unrestricted funds from it are subject to looting in order to pay for a $2.6 million loan the cathedral took out to purchase an apartment building on the 3700 block of Chestnut.  Their argument rather is that demolition is warranted in the "public interest," specifically that failure to demolish the brownstones and build the tower would prevent the cathedral from carrying out their ministry to the community.

If this smells rotten, I suspect that is because it probably is.  A number of years ago, Bishop Charles Bennison suggested that the diocese move their headquarters from the historic, 1750 Shippen-Wistar House on South 4th Street in Society Hill to the cathedral campus in West Philadelphia.  This is the same Bennison who drained the diocese's coffers with the purchase of 400 acres of land on the Chesapeake Bay to develop Camp Wapiti.  This is likewise the Bennison who approved then-Dean Richard Giles's unconscionable, unilateral destruction of the cathedral's matchless Victorian interior because of the Dean's own ideological and aesthetic sensibilities.

Interior, Church of the Saviour, as designed by Edwin Blashfield in 1906, and redesigned by Richard Giles in 2002 (Photos @ and

Most importantly, this is Charles Bennison the amoral heretic who protected his brother from the consequences of sexual misconduct, yet who defrocked conservative priest David Moyer of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pa., and who, out of spite, kicked the conservative congregation of St. James the Less on the border of East Falls and North Philadelphia out of their architecturally-famous building, which sits vacant to this day as a monument to the faith of a former time in the middle of its own burial grounds.

The Church of St. James the Less
(photo of a postcard from the author's personal
collection, postmarked 15 February 1907)

From an architectural and historical preservationist perspective, however, the proposed demolition and construction of the tower are even more troubling.  In effect, the cathedral was asking the Historical Commission to trade two small, less individually imposing structures for a larger, more important building.  Of course, the cathedral is more imposing and architecturally significant than the two brownstones.  But the trade-off method is one where development always wins in the long run, with the result that the historical fabric of the city — indeed, what makes Philly Philly — is lost and the seemingly inexorable march to banal sameness proceeds.  Over the last 40 years Philadelphia has lost a considerable amount of its unparalleled 19th century domestic treasures through demolition, most notably along Broad Street in North Philadelphia, but in parcels scattered throughout the older sections of the city as well.  The loss of one or two more might not seem to be much, but over time the losses mount.

The construction of a 25-story tower on this spot also breeds concern.  For starters, such a tall building would dwarf the cathedral as well as the 1887 Roman Catholic Church of St. Agatha-St. James across Chestnut Street.  Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad if we could hope for a striking, accomplished modernist building.  Such buildings exist, so I'm told — indeed, some may be found in London and New York — but Philadelphia hasn't seen one since the famous PSFS Tower was built in 1931.  The drawing supplied by the architects certainly doesn't inspire confidence.  Indeed, it doesn't offend to the same degree as the execrable International House at 37th and Chestnut and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School at 38th and Ludlow.  Nonetheless, it won't contribute to anything save the coffers of the Episcopal Church.  They had better use the money wisely, to restore the cathedral itself and expand their ministry.  It wouldn't hurt if they started to preach the apostolic gospel (indeed, the gospel of their own Anglican 39 Articles) as well.

I leave you with a couple of pictures of the area around the cathedral as it used to look in happier times.  This is the Philadelphia I remember as a youth, the Philadelphia I love, and the Philadelphia I wish still existed.  Unfortunately, too many people think the changes that have been made are the mark of "progress" (one of my least favorite words in the English language).

Church of the Saviour, 1969, with the Edward Thomas Davis residence,
38th and Ludlow, at left. The Davis residence was demolished
to construct a building for the Wharton School of Business
(City of Philadelphia photo @

Closeup, Edward Thomas Davis residence
(City of Philadelphia photo @

Courtyard west of 3725 Chestnut, 1969, with Church of the Saviour
in the background. The building to the left, at the corner of 38th and
Chestnut, has since been demolished, with a somewhat unkempt
grass lot in its place. The side wall of 3725 Chestnut has been
unceremoniously stuccoed over in the meantime.
(City of Philadelphia photo @

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