Renovation of Church in Philadelphia Is Criticized

From Associated Press

The renovation of a historic Philadelphia church has prompted criticism from some preservationists and architects who say the remodeling is destroying one of the finest Victorian church interiors in the nation.

The removal and sale of major features was authorized by the Church of the Savior's governing body, chaired by the Episcopal bishop of Pennsylvania.

The church, designated as the Episcopal cathedral for the city about 10 years ago, was designed in 1889 by Philadelphian Charles Burns, a renowned ecclesiastical architect. It was remodeled after a 1902 fire.

The latest changes include the dismantling of the central marble altar and removal of reliefs created by R. Tait Mackenzie, an internationally known sculptor who taught at the University of Pennsylvania. The reliefs are to be placed elsewhere in the cathedral.

The Rev. Paul S. Harris, head of program development at the church, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the changes were necessitated, in part, by the conversion of the building to cathedral status. Others changes, he said, were a result of a "reordering of the space" to make it more responsive "to the needs of the 21st century."

The marble from the altar will be given away, and an ornately carved pulpit has been sold, Harris said. An onyx baptismal font has been dismantled and parts of it will be incorporated in a new pool to be installed in the cathedral.

"It's appalling," said architect James N. Kise, who believes the renovations constitute "an act of cultural vandalism unparalleled in Philadelphia since World War II."

George Thomas, an architectural historian, agrees the changes are unprecedented and likened the dismantling to the Taliban's destruction of ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan several months ago.

The Rev. Richard Giles, dean of the church, has declined to answer questions regarding the renovations.

The interior of the church is outside the jurisdiction of the Historical Commission, state courts have ruled.

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