To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, reports of the demise of the Church of the Assumption might have been greatly exaggerated.
Also exaggerated are declarations that the church is out of troubled waters and headed for better days.
Indeed, there is little that can be assumed about the fate of the Church of Assumption.
The 163-year-old church, with its pair of towering spires at 11th and Spring Garden streets, was temporarily saved from the wrecking ball last week, thanks to a unanimous vote by the Review Board of the city’s Licenses and Inspections department.
Yet, the church, consecrated by Philadelphia’s St. John Neumann and where St. Katherine Drexel was baptized in 1858, is hardly out of the woods yet and the cycle of demolition threats and reprieves might well continue until the building is under new ownership or finally reduced to rubble.
Most recently, the L&I vote, which passed quickly and without much reaction from a crowd gathered in the hearing room at 1515 Arch St. last Tuesday, provided time for representatives of a local community group — the Callowhill Neighborhood Association — with additional time to find a new buyer for the property.
The current owners of the building, Siloam Wellness, a non-profit service association for the HIV-AIDS community, has long planned to tear the building down because it would cost too much to rehabilitate.
Debate over the future of the church has raged for years.
The building essentially has been abandoned for at least 15 years — Siloam operates out of a small rectory building adjacent to the structure — and demolition plans date back to at least before 2009, when the building at 1123–33 Spring Garden St. was first saved after being put on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and the Historical Commission placed a historic marker at the site.
Then, with a property value of about $600,000, Siloam requested the building be demolished, citing financial hardship.
Previously reported rehabilitation estimates ranged from $1.5 million to more than $5 million. In 2010, the Historic Commission granted Siloam the right to demolish the structure.
Yet, last week, the L&I board voted in favor of the CNA’s appeal to halt demolition of the building.
C’Anne Anderson, a board member of the CNA who was on hand for the hearing last week, said she was excited by the further opportunity to save the structure and noted that she believes a buyer is lined up for the property.
“That’s the last piece of what was once a beautiful avenue,” she said after the board voted. “We have a very serious buyer.”
That buyer, The Clay Studio, a non-profit ceramic arts organization based in Old City, might not be as serious as Anderson believes.
According to Amy Sarner Williams, president and CEO of the Clay Studio, the reports last week that claimed her group was eager to purchase the property were worded “a little strong.”
“There is no offer whatsoever,” she said during a May 18 interview. “It’s interesting to us, but that’s about it … We have made no commitment to the place.”
With estimates for rehabilitation of that building varying wildly, Sarner Williams said before they take any further steps, The Clay Studio would want to get an independent appraisal of the work that needs to be done and the costs that might be incurred.
“There are numbers being thrown out from all sides,” she said. “It’s all vague.”
When the Archdiocese of Philadelphia abandoned the structure 15 years ago, it removed stained glass windows, the altar and many other notable and valuable elements of the building.
Siloam, Sarner Williams said, removed further materials from the interior of the church after it bought the building in 2006, leaving the structure gutted.
“They ripped everything out of there,” she said. “It’s horrible what they have done … If that’s structurally unsound, nobody is going to do anything to it.”
Sarner Williams did say that the Clay Studio needs to expand from its current location at 139 N. 2nd St., but declined to provide a timetable in which the organization would need to make a decision.
“We need to do something,” she said. “But, nothing is anywhere near final.”
Yet, when discussing the church, Anderson of the CNA, said that while the Clay Studio was the “most serious” potential buyer working with the community group, there were other people interested in the building and the CNA plans to continue efforts to save the structure.
“We are pleased with today’s decision and we will keep after it,” she said Tuesday. “We want to see it saved, whatever needs to happen.”
Siloam’s lawyer, Kevin Boyle of Center City-based law firm Stradley Ronon Stevens and Young, didn’t reply to calls about the church’s future.
However, Boyle was quoted elsewhere last week saying he believes his client intends to appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org