Cathedral parish houses face demolition

Posted: May 10, 2012

The Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, a decade after withering criticism of what many viewed as a destructive renovation of its own ornate Victorian interior, is planning to demolish two historically certified brownstone structures in the 3800 block of Chestnut Street to make way for a 25-story apartment tower.

The project, which goes before the Philadelphia Historical Commission Friday, would obliterate the cathedral’s parish houses, designed by the noted ecclesiastical architect Charles M. Burns, and connect the proposed tower and administrative offices to the church itself via glass-enclosed walkways cut into the cathedral’s façade.

Originally built in 1855 and known as the Church of the Savior, the Philadelphia Cathedral was at one time the home parish of some of the city’s most illustrious families, who showered it with sculptures, decorative furniture, Tiffany stained glass windows, elaborate murals, wall stenciling, and countless other decorative details. In 2000 and 2001, virtually all of the interior was ripped out or obliterated by paint and plaster in an effort led by then-Dean Richard Giles, who favored clear white space. The experience shocked many parishioners and preservationists.

The current demolition and development plan, presented to the architecture committee of the historical commission on April 24, is necessary, cathedral officials said, because it is the only way enough revenue can be generated to maintain the deteriorating cathedral, which is also historically designated and also designed by Burns.

Preservationists and some members of the architecture committee question the plan, and wonder whether demolition of two buildings on the Philadelphia register is justified under the circumstances.

Judith Sullivan, the current cathedral dean, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Demolition and construction would be conducted by the cathedral in partnership with the Radnor Property Group, a developer.

Neil Sklaroff, an attorney with Ballard Spahr who is representing the cathedral in Historical Commission proceedings, argued in April that demolition of the two buildings was warranted in “the public interest.”

Without the funds produced by the new development, he said, the cathedral building would face serious structural and maintenance problems, and the church would not be able to continue its ministerial efforts and its provision of social services would erode.

Testifying before the architecture committee, Sullivan “stated that the architectural and religious value of the cathedral building far outweighs that of the other buildings on the campus” — namely the Burns-designed parish houses.

John Gallery, head of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, said Wednesday that the cathedral had fallen far short of making its case.

“They’re saying, ‘We need to demolish to make a $3 million deal with a private developer so that money can be used to repair the cathedral,’?” he said. “The argument that ‘we need to demolish to make money to preserve’ is very worrisome. What’s to stop the diocese from saying, ‘What the hell, I’ve got St. James the Less vacant and I need some money. I’ve got St. Peter’s vacant, let me tear that down, and use the money over here.’

“You open the door where anyone who owns multiple historic properties can tear down one for money to put into another. “How does the commission control that?”

The cathedral is not seeking to demolish and develop under the perservation ordinance’s “hardship” exception, which allows owners of historically designated properties to demolish a structure if it is an irremedial financial burden. Rather, the cathedral is arguing that the apartment tower would provide a more robust use of the property “in the public interest.”

Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or email at ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @SPSalisbury.

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