Written and drawn by Ben Leech
Unlisted is a series of portraits highlighting Philadelphia buildings not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. To learn how to protect a building by nominating it to the Register, click here.
Address: 1154-62 South Broad Street
Architect: George Lovatt
Of the thousands of historic church buildings in Philadelphia, only a small fraction are listed on the Philadelphia Register. St Rita’s is just one of the hundreds that could be but isn’t. A gleaming, swirling terra cotta temple that looks plucked from an opera stage, the church is an apt face for these masses of undocumented landmarks yearning to stay standing. Though it’s not the largest or oldest or grandest, it was built as a shrine to Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of lost and impossible causes. And while the future of this particular church, thanks to a healthy and well-funded congregation, seems forseeably safe in spite of its unlisted status, the future of hundreds of others is far more troubling.
Big old churches citywide are fighting against time, gravity, leaky roofs, and dwindling congregations. And mostly they are losing. The recent plight of the Church of the Assumption drives the point home– landmark status alone cannot ensure the future of these buildings that so define the skylines and streetscapes of our neighborhoods. “Saving” these churches just by landmarking them is like trying to pound a nail with a screwdriver. Unlike factories, another increasingly obsolescent building type we have in spades, churches are usually easier to demolish than repurpose, and even “protected” churches like Assumption are no match for the wrecker’s backhoe when the economics of preservation are not immediately, blatantly, even obscenely, obvious to those left holding the keys.
But if a screwdriver is all you have, swinging it is better than doing nothing. The Church of the Assumption would already be a surface lot if it hadn’t been listed on the Philadelphia Register in 2009. Plenty of others are now landfill because there was no legal mechanism to postpone or prevent their demolition. Along with a good roof and a little patience, listing on the Philadelphia Register can help today’s Assumption or Bonaventure or Boniface or Saint Peter be tomorrow’s Baptist Temple.
But back to Rita. In addition to being the patron saint of lost causes, she’s also the patron saint of baseball. So if you happen to be heading south on the orange line for any reason, especially, say, on your way to Citizens Bank Park, you may want to tip your cap at the Ellsworth-Federal stop. You’ll be sitting under a shrine that’s been keeping its end of the bargain in the good architecture department and the good baseball department. A little recognition is in order.