Status: Closed, Former Roman Catholic
1131 Spring Garden Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123
Original visit: May 2, 2008
Where Is It?
1131 Spring Garden Street! What area? Oh, let’s call it :rolls dice: West Poplar.
The latest installment of the *Abandoned* Philadelphia Church Project takes us to 11th & Spring Garden, just a short distance north of Center City. The exact neighborhood designation changes depending on whom you ask, but some have identified this area as West Poplar. Until I hear differently, so shall The Project.
Our specimen this week is the former Roman Catholic parish Assumption BVM. Assumption was one of the many victims of the North Philadelphia Swath of Destruction. It actually survived the Year of Hell, only to succumb two years later. In fact, until the closing of St. Boniface in 2006, Assumption had the distinction of being one of the Swath’s last victims.
The property is technically owned and operated by Siloam Wellness, an HIV non-profit, but the church isn't really in use, and since 1995 has effectively been undergoing the dreaded Long Goodbye.
It’s quite a loss, really. Even in its dilapidated state, the Gothic Assumption is still a striking building. Its smooth reddish-stone construction is unique and provides an interesting counter to the oxidized-copper spires on top. We’ve seen some copper spires before, but none on a building of this color. It’s a little weird, but the Project kind of digs it.
The size is also pretty good, if a tad on the smaller side, and it boasts huge windows. I should also point out the funky clerestory windows, which as designed look kind of skylights. Not a common design choice back in those days.
If you think it's impressive now, take a look at it in its prime:
And inside, what looks to be an opulent columned, non-cruciform Gothic design that may have been one of the best in the area. The grainy black-and-white image doesn't exactly do it justice, but I think it's clear that this was a real looker.
As for the inside, time has been less kind to it, although most of the damage has been done by Siloam, who hasn't just ignored the place, they've actually stripped and demoed it, leaving little intact. If you feel like crying, Abandoned America's Matthew Christopher has an excellent gallery of interior Assumption BVM shots.
Not content to leave well enough alone, Siloam has been trying to knock this place down for years. Depending on when you read this review, the church has likely either been approved for demolition or is in the midst of an appeal process. It's like a carousel, endlessly jerking us church lovers around.
Regardless of the rulings, without a motivated buyer to see past the rot, this place might as well be toast. And that kind of imagination is rare these days.
I'm still scratching my head over this one. The Archdiocese's itchy trigger finger got the better of them again, and they once more figured North Philly was a lost cause, writing this parish, and its neighborhood, off.
The thing is, if any parish in North Philadelphia deserved salvation, it was this one. Assumption BVM was rife with Roman Catholic history and tradition. Saint Katharine Drexel was baptized here; St. John Neumann administered confirmation here twice, and purportedly assisted in the church's consecration.
Oh, and for architecture buffs, it's alleged to be the oldest surviving work of architect Patrick Charles Keely, who also designed Project fave St. John the Baptist.
Now, yes, the Project realizes that the changes in North Philly brought the parish to some difficult times. But a thinking man would have looked at this church, realized the deep historical and spiritual significance, and taken steps to preserve it.
At the very least, why not turn the place into a shrine to St. Katherine Drexel? That would not only save the parish and the building, but also make Assumption BVM a destination, and bring in scores of additional revenue and attention.
Yet, the Archdiocese was not that thinking man (or men). In one of their most boneheaded, short-sighted and ridiculously incomprehensibly poor decisions, they swept Assumption aside with the rest of the North Philly Swath.
In fact, in one of life’s supreme ironies, they closed Assumption during the parish’s 150th anniversary year. I imagine the conversation went something like this:
ASSUMPTION BVM: Praise be to Jesus! Thank you for calling Assumption BVM.
PHILA ARCHDIOCESE: Ah, yes, hi, this is the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
ASSUMPTION: Archdiocese! How are ya, buddy?
ARCHDIOCESE: Good, good. Listen, we need to talk.
ASSUMPTION: Great! We just celebrated our 150th anniversary, and we’re reading for anything! Whoo-hoo!
ARCHDIOCESE: Uh, yeah, about that. We know you just reached an incredible milestone, and you're so historically significant to our flock, but uh, we’re going to have to go ahead and shut you down.
ASSUMPTION: What?!?!? :various choking sounds:
Perhaps the bigger irony is that, barely 10 years later, lower North Philadelphia is experiencing a complete renaissance. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it’s being born again through gentrification and yuppie voodoo.
The Archdiocese has taken a lot of flak for what is perceived as a liberal practice of closing parishes, and the Project has certainly spoken up where appropriate. Some ones had to go, no doubt. But the extent of the closings were pretty severe. And now some of them, like Assumption, are starting to look rather silly now that “North Philly” is no longer a punchline.
Sure, Assumption’s West Poplar area hasn’t exploded with the force of its eastern neighbor, Northern Liberties. But it’s still prime real estate, and as North Philly continues to remake itself, it’s only going to get better and better. I’d like to think the Archdiocese has a little egg on its face for this one.
ARCHDIOCESE: Thank you for calling the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
ASSUMPTION: Hey, remember me?
ARCHDIOCESE: Assumption! It’s, uh, great to hear from you.
ASSUMPTION: Yeah, have seen what’s going on north of the city? Pretty amazing stuff.
ARCHDIOCESE: Hehe, yeah. Uh, we might have jumped the gun a little on that one. Sorry, our bad.
11th & Spring Garden is easy to find, but parking can be a little difficult, even in the middle of the day. The area’s not as snooty as Northern Liberties, and it doesn’t look quite as nice, but I don’t think you have much to worry about. If nothing else, Spring Garden is a major thoroughfare.
Assumption has two huge brick flowerpots stationed on either side of its main front door. There’s nothing really remarkable about that. I just find it kind of neat, especially since I don’t think we’ve seen it before.
The Final Word
Sad, like all abandoned excursions, but very much worth your while. One of the formerly great parishes of lower North Philadelphia.