Philly’s Church of the Savior seeks to raze historic buildings ‘to save the cathedral’

The Philadelphia Historical Commission will meet Friday to decide whether to allow the Episcopal Cathedral of Philadelphia to destroy two historically recognized buildings it owns, and build a 25-story apartment, office, and retail complex in their place, in order to finance cathedral repairs and expand its ministry.

The dean of the cathedral says the cathedral’s survival depends on this plan. Preservationists counter that the cathedral’s interests in this case do not in any way trump the public interest.

From the Philadelphia Daily News:

The cathedral on South 38th Street, known as the Church of the Saviour until it was named the cathedral in 1991, was built in 1855 and redesigned in 1889 by noted ecclesiastical architect Charles M. Burns. After a devastating fire, Burns redesigned it again in 1902. Burns also designed the two three-story brownstones on Chestnut Street that the cathedral wants to knock down. The houses, fashioned to complement the brownstone cathedral, serve as its rectory and parish house.

All three properties are on the National Register of Historic Places and were placed on the local register in 1981.

A decade ago, the dean of the cathedral, the Rev. Richard Giles, with the backing of Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr., renovated the cathedral interior – widely considered the finest intact Victorian interior in the region – by obliterating elaborate murals by Edwin Blashfield, and removing sculpture, furniture, and pews. The actions shocked many preservationists and parishioners alike.

Now the cathedral is back with another proposal that seeks to alter its own historic fabric, and this time, the proposal has substantial policy implications, preservationists say.

“It represents a grave danger of widening the interpretation of the [preservation] ordinance,” Gallery said. “It opens the opportunity for other owners of multiple historic properties to make the claim that demolition of one should be allowed in order to preserve another.”

The dean of the cathedral, Judith Sullivan, and David Yeager, head of Radnor Property Group, the cathedral’s private partner, say that is exactly what they want to do.

“We are petitioning for demolition of the buildings,” Sullivan said during a recent interview.

“In order to save the cathedral,” Yeager said, completing her thought.

“In order to save the cathedral,” Sullivan affirmed.

Read the whole story here.

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  1. Peter Pearson

    Although they might consider saving the facades of the old buildings, this is a good plan and the Diocese of PA really needs a good plan right now. Give them a break.

  2. tgflux

    I HATE these kind of fights, w/ a fiery passion.

    I believe in the separation of Church&State, but I also see where Historic Landmark laws make the separation blurry. I think the wider community SHOULD have a say (as they would w/ the CofE and an established church!) in the historic edifices they see in their midst every day.

    At the same time, buildings that are Landmarks SHOULD have some help in upkeep *from* that wider community.

    It’s a sticky wicket, to be sure. But PLEASE Work It Out! Don’t destroy history, and beauty, just for the bucks. Find the bucks (necessary though they be) some other way!

    JC Fisher

  3. Roger Mortimer

    To “save the cathedral” – salvation was clearly not a factor in the iconoclasm a few years back – or to hand its power structure the “financial independence” some at Trinity, Wall Street currently enjoy?

    The upshot of the 1990’s St Bart’s, NY case, was a circuit court ruling, which the Supreme Court declined to review, that religious buildings are not exempt from historic protection ordinances.

  4. Pmgentry

    As a Philly resident, I don’t mind demolishing those buildings. What the article doesn’t say is that there is a vacant parcel (landscaped, somewhat ineffectually, as a garden) between those two townhouses and the Cathedral, producing an ugly blank wall on the side of one of the historical townhouses. The overall visual effect is neither “historic” nor pleasant. A well-designed modern building could actually be an improvement to the streetscape.

    However, the problem in the diocese, of course, is the zero trust we have in our bishop, especially when it comes to large financial dealings! Who knows what schemes are lurking in the background…

  5. Having had the pleasure of many long conversations with now retired Dean Richard Giles when he was still in England at St. Thomas, Huddersfield (a dead Victorian building that he helped bring to new life, beauty, and function), having talked with him at length about what we built at St. Gregory’s, San Francisco, and having spent two days doing workshops in the near derelict Church of the Saviour before Richard began his effective renewing of the building for beauty and satisfying multi-function (liturgies large and small, concerts, workshops, community gatherings, etc.), I have to protest this description:

    ‘To “save the cathedral” – salvation was clearly not a factor in the iconoclasm a few years back…’ It’s interesting to call it ‘iconoclasm.’ Among the icons that disappeared were dingy fleurs de lys stencils on the walls. Icons were (and I still assume are) a happy part of the life of the cathedral. A few days after my second visit with Richard and the tiny congregation he’d taken on with the church of making the derelict building genuinely the diocese’s cathedral, the workmen came and removed the pews. When the pews were unbolted, the rotting old floor joists sagged so badly that floor’s understructure had to be replaced. I do remember some long conversations with Richard about the interior Victorian painting. I thought there was a possibility of making something fresh and coherent and saving some of it. Richard’s vision was, we agreed, more Cistercian and mine more Russo-Byzantine. But Richard’s perspective from years of work as a priest-architect consulting with churches in England that were facing huge challenges in conserving listed (historically designated) buildings at church expense and making them useful for mission was that 1000 year old buildings have a steady history of renovation, addition, and renewal that always includes an element of loss. The renovation Richard envisioned and oversaw produced is beautiful. The building he was asked to renew was dingy and structurally unsound. I suppose the building could have restored it as a shrine to Charles M Burns’ 1902 vision of the church. What happened instead looks to me and others like inspired architecture in the service of vision and mission. Yes, the project did save the cathedral or rather, took the derelict Church of the Saviour and made it possible that it could become a cathedral.

  6. Further rejoinder to calling Richard Giles’ work iconoclastic is in the photos of the renewed building and frescoes that were saved and restored in the apse and dome:

    Richard’s work on the cathedral can and should be an inspiration to all of us thinking about best use of large, historic buildings.

    I particularly appreciate Pmgentry’s remark in this thread. The renewal of the cathedral in Philadelphia and ministry that could be realized there in the renewed space matters to the whole church.

    The breakdown in trust with the bishop also matters beyond the diocese, but I hate to see it obscure the accomplishment and possibilities that we can see and learn from in the renewal (and yes ‘saving’) of a derelict landmarked building.

  7. Roger Mortimer

    “…..renovated the cathedral interior – widely considered the finest intact Victorian interior in the region – by obliterating elaborate murals by Edwin Blashfield, and removing sculpture, furniture, and pews”. Sounds to me a tad more root and branch than a few “dingy fleurs de lys stencils”. I was rather the impression, incidentally, that the “Russo-Byzantine” tradition tends to go rather heavily for decorated walls.

    “De gustibus”, as they say. “Two men looked through prison bars, One saw mud, One saw stars” And no, renewal does not always include an element of loss.

    In England, incidentally, renovation to a listed Anglican church is permitted only with the permission of both diocesan and state authorities. Excellent idea.

  8. Roger Mortimer

    I did not see your newly-posted links until I was through with my last post, Donald. Looks like nothing so much as a bus station.

  9. Lois Keen

    1) I was in the Diocese of Pennsylvania for a year. I loved worshiping in the Cathedral. It is truly beautiful.

    2) A cathedral is more than its congregation, membership and ASA.

    I hope the cathedral prevails. I say that as a historian who is revisiting her possible idolatry regarding historic places.

  10. Lois Keen

    By the way, what you can’t see from the photo of the font is that in building a baptismal pool, the original font is part of that structure. A channel was cut in the marble of the original font and water runs continually from it into the pool, except in Lent when the font and pool are left empty until the Vigil of Easter.

  11. barbara snyder

    A cathedral is more than its congregation, membership and ASA.

    I’d agree. Of course, there was nary a peep when the Delaware Cathedral was shut down earlier this year, along with its stupendous neighborhood choir program.

    I guess it’s not surprising, considering that the Delaware Cathedal was in a poor neighborhood in a poor city. Oh, and the “liturgical renewal movement” had no interest in it.

    And so it goes – as the Philadelphia Cathedral continues to be touted as a resounding success and an inspiration to us all….

  12. Peter Pearson

    It’s pretty clear that there will be no agreement about the renovation of the interior of the cathedral in Philly (which I absolutely LOVE) but we aren’t talking about that. Nor are we talking about a specific bishop. We are talking about the future of a diocese and it’s cathedral. For goodness sake, let go of the resentments and deal with the question at hand. That is the one thing that I did not like about serving in the Diocese of PA— everyone’s unwillingness to just let the past go.

    Anyway, there is a plan to deal with the facades of the buildings, I discovered today, and it’s been in place because that’s what the historic status commissions would normally require. So this is all much ado about nothing.

    Let it go.

  13. barbara snyder

    Peter, one of the statements made above was this: “Richard’s work on the cathedral can and should be an inspiration to all of us thinking about best use of large, historic buildings.”

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable to question that particular statement, given the facts. It has nothing to do with the Diocese of PA, but with an exhortation in the comments about what’s good for “all of us.” So, yes: we ARE talking about that, because that’s the way the conversation has gone here.

    If you want to talk about the Diocese of PA, by all means please do – but please stop policing others’ conversations.

  14. barbara snyder

    (Sorry, Peter. You are probably right that we should be talking about more important things. But, this thread is about architecture, and that’s what people ARE talking about. I don’t see what’s wrong with that; these are conversations, and they go where they go. We really should be allowed to respond.

    The Diocese of PA is not even mentioned in the opening post, in fact….)

  15. Peter Pearson

    If anyone is hearing a need on my part to control the conversation or to sidetrack things, all I can say is that they are not listening or they are projecting. But please could we talk about the office building, which I believe was the original point? Is that too demanding of me?

    Peace to all!

  16. E B

    Has anyone come across photos of the two buildings slated for demolition, or of the interior of the cathedral prior to renovation? Having trouble finding these materials; hoping that doing so will help me better understand the issue.

    One thing I did learn is that the plans have been approved by the city historical commission; see

    During the commission’s hearing, the city was told that the plans were essential if the cathedral is to be saved. Yet the for-profit developer behind the plans apparently provided few specifics about the money the diocese would receive, plans for restoration, or a timetable.

    Assuming the media reports are accurate, there appears a serious lack of business acumen, a lack of transparency, or both. In either case, the handling of this situation bodes ill for the cathedral and the diocese.

    If nothing else, the diocese should retain professional advice before moving forward. Supervision of a project of this scope is well outside the skill sets of most dioceses, and relying solely on the developer is a recipe for disaster.

    Eric Bonetti

  17. Eric,

    These two photos give some impression of what the renovation of the Cathedral chose to save and what got painted out –

    What you don’t see in the first photo was how dark and grimy the interior had become.

    and Barbara,

    If my saying the renovation can and should inspire us seemed to you to be holding every specific of the renovation of Philadelphia Cathedral up as a formula to be copied, let me clarify. What I hope and and should inspire us is a mission-driven living engagement with our church’s inherited resources and the opportunities of the present. I think what Richard Giles accomplished does that, not exactly as anyone else would have done it, not exactly as it should be done in some other setting, but authentically and satisfyingly. I experienced the Cathedral as a worship place and a place to spend the day in teaching and quiet before the renovation. And I worshiped there on various occasions (with larger and smaller congregations) and participated in a workshop/learning/retreat day after the renovation.

    The renovated space worked well. A moribund and near derelict building had been renewed and transformed into a place of light, music, stillness, mystery, and movement.

    When I visited with Richard shortly after he’d arrived there were fewer than twenty people at the main Sunday liturgy and the building looked and felt dingy, dark and almost abandoned. As I noted above, Richard and I talked about his vision for the restoration and noted some differences in taste and vision between us. Richard agreed that his inspiration was Cistercian. His vision for the cathedral congregation was also neo-monastic. Restoring the flexibility that the Cathedral’s ancient models offered served not only multiple use and the possibility of gathering many congregations together in one space, but his hope to build a solid worshiping congregation of 80-100 on a Sunday. He and the congregation made choices for renewed congregational life and saving and transforming a very good but neglected and compromised old building.

    I think we can and should be inspired by the commitment they showed (to the best of their lights) to beauty, welcome, prayer, and mission. Any of those commitments may (in one situation or another) put us in conflict with a strictly preservationist agenda. But the changes were certainly envisioned and implemented to “save the cathedral” and they were not iconoclastic (both from Roger Mortimer’s comments above).

  18. Roger Mortimer

    Iconoclasm is by definition, in its strict and original meaning, the destruction of painted or mosaic images, Donald – I understand, by the way, that those dark and grimy images that are no longer with us were not in fact “painted out” – rather they were concealed but preserved. As fashion’s wheel turns – and arguably the recent changes have already passed their expiration date – future generations may see what we no longer can.

  19. Roger, I think I’m hearing that you knew the old paintings on the walls of the Church of the Saviour and regret that they’re covered. As I said above, Richard’s preference for very, very spare iconography reflects his Cistercian leanings. With a different sensibility, I had the privilege of building a church from the ground up, helping the neighbors through their fears of change, and in the process commissioning and overseeing the production of one of the larger iconographic installations of the 20th century at St. Gregory’s, San Francisco:

    What’s missing in the definition your offer as ‘strict and original’ for iconoclasm is that the iconoclasts for him the term was coined had a principled opposition to all images of saints. Iconoclasts churches could be heavily decorated but not with the faces of saints. And a principled iconoclast wouldn’t have preserved the saints in the apse and dome as Richard did.

    I don’t share his preference for austerity but still maintain it’s not helpful to describe Richard Giles as an iconoclast in the historical sense the term came to be used or in the doctrines that accompanied it that were condemned at the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

  20. Roger,

    I don’t think the new link is working either. May I offer this:

    This is an account of how the term we use was coined in church debates over theology and practice and includes some interesting recent scholarship re-examining what prompted it.

  21. Roger Mortimer

    I know today that the paintings have been covered; yesterday I assumed that they had been destroyed.

  22. Peter Pearson

    Hello all! I just returned a few minutes ago from an ordination at the building(s) in question. First of all, I don’t know about the facades but those buildings are not user friendly for the purposes for which they are needed to serve. Maybe the facades are pretty but the rest of the two row houses are quite unremarkable and certainly not designed with any of our present day needs in mind (too many stairs, poor insulation, bad electrical, etc.).

    As for the cathedral itself, a woman remarked to me after the liturgy that she loved the sense of actually being a part of the worship instead of an observer. Wasn’t that the whole point of that renovation of the interior of the church? If so, I’d say it works well. Obviously there are many views on liturgy but if we are aiming at full and active participation, this moves us into the right direction. Besides how many wonderful examples of fine Victorian churches do we need in the 21st century?

    Now to get this other project done. Best wishes to the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

  23. Lois Keen

    Barbara Snyder, there was indeed a peep about the Cathedral Church of Saint John in Delaware, at least by me. It was my home parish. My husband was a chorister there. We met there. We were married there. I was ordained priest there and served my curacy there. And we were there last month at the service celebrating the cathedral’s decades of service.

    And, my peep included the note that the Cathedral in Delaware closed, in part because they lived the gospel, serving the poor, and the poor can’t pledge enough to support big honking building plants. Unfortunately for the Cathedral in Delaware, they had nothing to sell but themselves. At least the cathedral in Philadelphia does have property to sell. Meanwhile, shame on those churches who are holding onto their endowments while those whose main population are the poor are closing because of lack of financial support.

  24. E B


    Thanks very much for your comments. I agree. All our affluence — and yes, we are wildly affluent by the standards of many in this world — if we cannot serve those in need. If our only purpose is to support beautiful but aged buildings used for a few hours a week, I say let them go. We will be better off without these costly assets. Let’s embrace change and welcome a new beginning.

    Eric Bonetti

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