The city’s Committee on Historic Designation approved recommendation for two Catholic properties in South Philadelphia to be potentially included on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, an inventory encompassing more than 22,000 properties and 15 historic districts across the city.
The entities, including Church of the Annunciation Roman Catholic Church, 1501 S. 10th St., and St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church Rectory, 808 Hutchinson St., were nominated for historical designation by Philadelphia-based historian and criminologist Celeste A. Morello on Wednesday in front of the committee.
The sites will then be reviewed by the Philadelphia Historical Commission for final consideration at a public meeting on Oct. 11.
“A lot of people think that the word ‘historic’ is synonymous with ‘old,’ ” Morello said. “The word ‘historic’ means something meaningful happened there and that building has meaning in a certain way.”
Under Morello’s proposals, both properties, which were constructed during the mid- to late 19th century, satisfy a particular criteria for the city’s standards of historical designation, which is embodying “distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style or engineering specimen.”
Maintaining Second Empire style, a “rarity” design in South Philadelphia, St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church Rectory was completed in the late 1870s, when it was home to Vicar General of the Archdiocese Maurice A. Walsh until his death in 1888, according to Morello’s research. Walsh’s residence at the rectory supports Morello’s other argument that the property meets the committee’s historical criteria for being “associated with the life of a person significant in the past.”
Upon the completion, an archdiocesan newspaper, “The Catholic Standard,” named the rectory the “finest in the city,” also according to Morello’s research.
Nestled off of 10th and Christian streets, the Bella Vista church itself, which was historically designated in 1980, is actually of Gothic design.
“Architecturally, you get two buildings in two different styles,” Morello said.
Less than 1 mile south, Church of the Annunciation Roman Catholic Church nomination meets another criteria of “owing to its unique location or singular physical characteristic, represents an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood, community or City.”
Serving as a distinguished landmark of the Passyunk Square community, Annunciation is one of few Gothic Revival buildings in this area of South Philly, representing “an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood,” as stated in Morello’s nomination.
“It served south of Washington Avenue for a big area for a long time,” she said. “So, it stands out…It wasn’t really an ideal residential area, but Catholics were still moving down from St. Paul’s and that’s where the population grows – going southward into undeveloped area.”
Both properties are two of three churches currently owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that serve as candidates for historical designation in October.
At Wednesday’s meeting, a representative of the Archdiocese did not testify at the hearing, but in a statement to SPR, the Archdiocese says it “took no position on this matter one way or the other.”
However, the Archdiocese has noted financial concerns related to the historic designation of its properties in the past.
Among the dozen of properties nominated during Wednesday’s meeting, the Church of the Annunciation Roman Catholic Church and St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church Rectory were the only two located in South Philadelphia
Compared to other regions of the city, South Philly properties typically do not receive nominations as frequently.
“It’s always nice to see some activity in South Philadelphia,” said Patrick Grossi, advocacy director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. “There are very few designated properties in South Philly, unfortunately. And the kinds of properties that, more often than not, invite this kind of attention tend to be churches. And, because it’s South Philadelphia, most of those churches tend to be Catholic.”
Grossi, whose nonprofit works across the city help recognize buildings that are potentially worthy of protection and preservation, says the lack of historical designations in South Philadelphia could be attributed to its mass presence of rowhouses.
With the exception of Girard Estates, which is designated as a historic district, South Philadelphia’s fairly modest stretches of rowhomes don’t necessarily meet the typical historical merits presented by the Committee on Historic Designation.
But, Grossi says there are several properties, including industrial and institutional locations, that are worth being considered for nomination.
“Unfortunately, there has not been a lot of designation in South Philadelphia…and some of it is just lack of attention,” Grossi said. “There are definite candidates throughout the area.”
Morello echoes his thoughts, noting that during the 19th century, life in South Philly essentially depended upon work and religion with sparse pastimes and recreational activity.
This further elevates the historical significance of properties such as the Church of the Annunciation Roman Catholic Church and St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church Rectory.
“There’s a lot of very significant churches. When you look at the South Philadelphia community, you’re looking at a working-class residential area,” Morello said. “The churches were the main thing, because when you look at 19th-century life, it was work and the church and your family. That’s all that mattered. Those were the basics.”