The city’s Committee on Historic Designation approved a recommendation for the former Sacred Heart of Jesus Parochial School, located at 231 Reed St., to be potentially included on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, an inventory including more than 22,000 properties and 15 historic districts across the city.
Nestled in the heart of Pennsport, the now-defunct Catholic school was nominated for historical designation by South Philadelphia-based historian and criminologist Celeste A. Morello on Wednesday in front of the committee.
In Morello’s argument, the property, which was purchased by Christopher Columbus Charter School a few years ago, satisfies particular criteria for the city’s standards of historical designation.
The committee approved two of her three cases, concurring that the property “embodies distinguishing characteristics of Romanesque Revival architecture” and that the “imposing school building, cited on a prominent corner of Moyamensing Avenue where most other buildings are smaller-scale, represents an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood.”
“I often go to Mass over at Sacred Heart and people look at this building and they still have fond memories,” Morello said. “They love the building in the neighborhood. They don’t want to see anything happen to the building, not for just emotional reasons but architecturally, you’re looking at a very good design and something that should not be demolished in the future. Something that should be maintained for the masonry alone.”
According to her research, the plot of land at Reed Street and Moyamensing Avenue was purchased by Sacred Heart Parish in 1889 specifically for the construction of a school, as the Pennsport community was experiencing an influx of Irish immigrants.
The school, which opened in 1893, was designed by William P. Regan, who was heavily influenced by leading American architect Henry Hobson Richardson.
Sacred Heart of Jesus Parochial School is considered one of the few Richardson Romanesque in the city to contain the acclaimed architect’s designs of the late 1870s and 1880s, according to the nomination.
“It’s a real outstanding feature in the landscape there,” said Jeffrey Cohen, an architectural historian on the Committee on Historic Designation. “It’s a remarkable building…I think you’re quite right in thinking of it as a familiar visual feature.”
Though the committee approved Morello’s criteria arguments regarding the structure’s architectural significance and its presence as a neighborhood landmark, the staff opposed her reasoning for Criterion “J,” which argues that “the nomination contends that the building exemplifies the cultural, political, economic, social, or historical heritage of the community.”
Morello says Sacred Heart represented the local Irish Catholics population’s efforts to weave their identity in the cultural fabric of Philadelphia during the late 19th-century.
“I think building something like Sacred Heart School, as immense and as stylish as it was, I think, that was a statement that they were trying to make to the community that, ‘We are there. That we have come up and we are part and integrated into the city of Philadelphia,’ ” she said.
But the committee questioned this idea, suggesting that, perhaps, all religious institutions built during this time period served as a community haven for immigrating populations.
“It’s likely that most 19th- and 20th-century churches in Philadelphia are going to be associated with a particular ethnic group in a particular area, so does that mean all of them are significant for criteria J?” asked historian Emily Cooperman, chairwoman of the Committee on Historic Designation.
About a decade after the Catholic school was constructed, the Abigail Vare Public School opened a few blocks south on the same side of Moyamensing Avenue bearing similar architectural style as Sacred Heart.
Sacred Heart was constructed in the “backyard” of politician William Scott Vare, who used the subject of public school as a major aspect of his platform, according to Morello’s research.
Considering Abigail Vare Public School contains a similar style, the commission argues that, except for a few aspects of the building, the architectural design of Sacred Heart is not necessarily exclusively of “Catholic” design, further weakening the argument for criteria J.
“I think that the nomination could have benefitted from a longer discussion of – is there a stylistic tension happening between the design of the public school and the design of the Catholic school,” said committee member Elizabeth Milroy. “Is there something inherently Catholic about the Sacred Heart design versus the (Varism) public school?”
Though the school is currently closed, Christopher Columbus Charter School plans on reactivating the space as an additional charter institution.
The school is currently seeking an in-concept review by the Architectural Committee and Historical Commission regarding construction additions to the building.
Christopher Columbus has been awaiting approval from the School District of Philadelphia to proceed with the school’s additions, according to attorney Robert O’Donnell, who represents Christopher Columbus Charter School.
Along with additions, the school proposes internal renovations. However, since historical designation will affect only the facades of the standing structure, Christopher Columbus Charter School did not object to the nomination.
“We offer no comment on the merits of the allegation for designation,” O’Donnell said at Wednesday’s meeting.
The site will be reviewed by the Philadelphia Historical Commission for final consideration at an upcoming public meeting on Dec. 13.
“(Sacred Heart) serves as a reminder – even though it is and has been in the ownership of different people…it still has a place in the community in Pennsport,” Morello said.