Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Tale of Two Buildings, Part 2: The Church of the Assumption and the Wilde Yarn Mill

Philadelphia is, despite occasional-yet-ineffectual objections from a certain city on the east coast of Massachusetts, America's most historic city. Not surprisingly, it is also the repository of the country's most significant stock of historic architecture. That simple fact, blessing though it may be for the scores who love the city for what it is and what makes it differ from all other places, has proven to be a bane for the simple reason that Philadelphia is an American city. And that nasty fact means that scores of other people, particularly those with the financial and political wherewithal to shape the city's future, view its buildings and parcels of land with eyes that view economic development as the summum bonum of modern civilization. Usually that means one further thing: more often than not the interests of history, community identity, and aesthetics are sacrificed on the twin altars of individualism ("property rights") and Mammon. What is lost in the process is what makes Philadelphia unique and better than all other American cities. What is gained is the increasing suburbanization and ineffectual "hipification" (a McGahey neologism) of the city, an inexorable process apparently intended to turn the city into a banal replica of scores of other sterile American cities with whom (for various reasons) it will never be able to compete.

Back in October I wrote about two iconic buildings whose opposite fates illustrate the dilemma the city and its citizens face: the Divine Lorraine Hotel on Broad Street in Lower North Philadelphia (proposed renovation) and the Ortlieb's Brewery in Northern Liberties (impending demolition). Yesterday I learned about similar fates awaiting two other historic structures. In this case, unfortunately, the more significant of the two is the one facing the wrecking ball.

Stack on original mill building
(photo by author)

First for the good news. Yesterday Hidden City Philadelphia announced the good news that the old Wilde Yarn Mill on Main Street at the southeastern edge of Manayunk was slated for renovation and conversion to apartments. Dating from 1884, 1932, and 1983, the three-part mill ceased operation only in 2008, at which time it had long been the oldest carpet yarn manufacturing facility in the United States (for a history of the mill, see the write-up in Workshop of the World - Philadelphia; for pictures of some of its abandoned machinery, see this post in Abandoned NY). The proposal, at least as found in the images provided by Bloomfield and Associates, is quite good, and promises to turn the mill complex into a worthy complement to the restored Blantyre and Scofield Mills farther up Main Street.
Wilde Yarn Mill, 1983 addition, September 2010
(photo by author)
Original 1884 building on top of the hill, off Ridge Ave.
(photo by author)
(photo by author)

The Church of the Assumption in its youth
(photo @philebrity.com)
Alas, however, the news is not all good. For it was announced yesterday by PlanPhilly that the City of Philadelphia had issued a demolition permit to CID Construction to knock down the historic Church of the Assumption at 1123 Spring Garden St. in the Callowhill section of Lower North Philadelphia. This magnificent church building, whose twin, oxidized copper-spired towers reach a height of 15 stories, was completed in 1849, and is the oldest surviving work of architect Patrick Charles Keely (for a full write-up, see the excellent post in the Philadelphia Church Project).  As impressive as the exterior remains, the Gothic sanctuary was where the church's real glory lay (if you want to cry, take a look at the gallery of pictures over at Abandoned America, which show the present day dereliction of the interior after stripping by its previous owners).  The church also has historical significance via connections to two Philadelphians later canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. The building was (supposedly) consecrated by St. John Neumann (later buried nearby at St. Peter's Church at 5th and Girard), and was the location of the baptism of St. Katharine Drexel. Nonetheless, the church was shuttered in 1995 by the Philadelphia Archdiocese, who no doubt took the building's marginal location more into consideration than they did its historical and architectural significance.

Frankly, this was a day I had hoped would never come. In 2006 the archdiocese sold the building to Siloam, a social services agency advocating for people suffering with HIV. Yet within only a few years Siloam, claiming financial hardship and inability to sell the building, requested permission to demolish the historically-certified building. The toothless and spineless Historical Commission caved, only to have their decision reversed by the Board of L&I Review on the grounds that Siloam's effort to sell the property had been somewhat less than ardent. But Siloam managed to sell the property in July to Chinatown developer John Wei. At the same time, Judge Idlee Fox reversed the L&I decision, opening the way for Wei to demolish the church and redevelop the property, even though the original grounds for Siloam's being granted the permission to demolish a certified building, viz., financial hardship, no longer apply. That, notwithstanding the propriety of the legal interpretation of the matter, is just plain wrong.

More than that, it is destructive of the historic integrity and fabric of the neighborhood which, in recent years, has shown unmistakable signs of revitalization. I will grant that balancing the twin concerns of individual property rights and community integrity is often difficult. Increasingly, however, 21st century America has gone too far in the direction of favoring individualism. And, of course, this is to be expected in a society where money talks the loudest, and where people with the money wield power more commensurate with the size of their offshore portfolios than their numbers. Make no mistake, however, a building like the Church of the Assumption would not be wantonly destroyed in any self-respecting European nation, even in those where church attendance hovers in the low single digits. Why? Because such nations value historical identity, just like any Philadelphian worthy to be called the name should as well.

Thus far Mr. Wei has remained mum about his plans for the site. Perhaps he has in mind some oppressively banal "mixed use" development so popular today among the city's movers and shakers. Whatever it is he plans, however, I am confident that it will pale in comparison to the glorious house of worship now sitting condemned and derelict on the site. But all is not lost for the neighborhood. The Spring Garden Wash & Lube will still remain next door ...

(photo by author, January 2011)
Church of the Assumption, January 2011
(photo by author)

(Photo by author, January 2011)
(photo by author, January 2011)

(Photo by author, September 2012)


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