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The current state of the sanctuary space at First African Baptist Church.

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Saving South Philly’s churches

Do neighborhoods’ old, sacred spaces stand a chance in this rapidly developing city?

There’s a rumor that a time capsule is buried behind the cornerstone of the First African Baptist Church at 1600 Christian Street. Nobody from the church’s since-relocated congregation is sure what’s inside, since it would have been placed in the church when it was erected in 1906 as one of the first African-American Baptist churches in the nation.

For now, they’ll have to keep guessing. The impressive limestone, Gothic Revival-style church, which almost succumbed to the wrecking ball two years ago before it was designated historic, isn’t disappearing any time soon.

Other sacred spaces in the neighborhood and all around Philadelphia are not as fortunate.

First African Baptist Church in Graduate Hospital was sold to a developer in 2016 when the congregation could no longer afford repairs on the deteriorating building.

Many South Philly neighborhoods, including Graduate Hospital, once had high concentrations of churches. Records show that in 1910, there were seven churches on Christian Street between Broad and 21st streets, serving the mostly African-American community that lived in the area. Today, only three remain.

Not only are many of the churches architecturally significant, such as the Frank Furness- and George W. Hewitt-designed Nineteenth Street Baptist Church built in 1874, but each structure stands as a direct reminder of the African-American and immigrant communities that once populated South Philly.

But the disappearance of city churches isn’t the result of declining interest among young adults. In fact, a 2015 Pew study found that the size of historically Black Protestant religions has actually remained stable, compared to other religious denominations.

Pastor Terrence Griffith of the First African Baptist Church says there are two reasons for churches closing up shop in the city. “Quite a lot of churches are leaving South Philly. I guess, because of gentrification and parking,” says Griffith, whose congregation moved to 67th Street in West Philly when it could no longer afford the upkeep of the deteriorating church at 1600 Christian Street.

19th Street Baptist Church, designed by Frank Furness and George W. Hewitt in 1874 and made of serpentine stone, is currently being restored.

As neighborhoods gentrify and housing prices become increasingly more out of reach, aging congregation members move further away from their local churches, and commuting to Sunday services by car becomes more common. But most of these city churches, built to serve nearby residents, weren’t designed to accommodate parking needs.

Thus, when congregants relocate, their churches often follow or close up shop. This puts the churches that they leave behind in limbo, and often in the hands of developers with eyes on profit margins.

In June 2017, the 120-year-old Christian Street Baptist Church, previously the L'Emmanuello Italian Mission Church, listed its 6,500-square-foot sanctuary for sale for $1.5 million. The St. James Pentecostal Church at 41st and Ludlow Streets also went on the market for $1.3 million, but given that it is historically designated it will not meet the fate of New Light Beulah Baptist Church at 1701 Bainbridge from circa 1870, which posted a demolition notice in early June.

If New Light Beulah Baptist Church does get razed, it will join a growing list of sacred spaces in Philadelphia that have met the same fate. By Rachel Hildebrandt’s own count, 28 religious buildings in Philly have been demolished since 2009.

“There are two issues here,” explains Hildebrandt, a senior program manager at Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit organization that supports congregations with historic sanctuaries. “There are congregations that are struggling to stay afloat, to care for their buildings while also doing ministry, and there are congregations that cannot resist the option to extract value from their real estate and relocate to an area in which parking isn’t an issue.”

Congregations that list their churches for sale can’t legally make stipulations about the future use of their sanctuaries. Their best hope is to have the structure protected by designation on the city’s Register of Historic Places or to sell the property to a community-minded developer who is up for the challenge—and cost—of repurposing a church.

And in South Philly, only a small number of places are designated historic. According to a Philadelphia Historical Commission report from 2014, just 682 properties of the approximately 12,000 listed on the Philadelphia Register were in the South Planning District (defined roughly as between Washington Ave and Oregon Ave, river to river).

“There are hundreds of churches worthy of nomination throughout the city,” Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. “Only about 2.2 percent of all the buildings in Philadelphia are on the local register. That means almost 98 percent of the structures now standing in Philadelphia, not just churches, are not listed. There’s a lot of work to do to get the city’s historic inventory up to where it should be.”

A demolition notice has been posted to the door of nearly 150-year-old New Light Beulah Baptist Church, at 17th and Bainbridge.

Oscar Beisert is a local preservation activist who is responsible for successfully nominating First African Baptist Church and dozens of other structures to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. He admits that his views on pristine preservation have become more flexible with time, and argues that restoring historic buildings should play an integral role in Philadelphia’s current wave of new development.

He also believes that there should be “some kind of tax-related incentive” in place for developers to who want to repurpose structures.

“Because what they’re doing is making the city what it should be,” says Beisert, “instead of rewarding people who build crappy boxes that are thrown up in a hurry, to sell as many as possible, that actually detract from the attractiveness of the city.”

A Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive does exist, but there are stringent eligibility requirements. These include being listed on the National Register of Historic Places; rehabilitation that strictly adheres to the 10 principles of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation; and using the building for an income-producing purpose for at least five years.

Pennsylvania started offering a Historic Preservation Tax Credit in 2012, joining 29 other states in the country, but the commonwealth’s total available tax credits are capped at $3 million, annually.

With limited tax incentives in Philadelphia, and in light of the lengthy guidelines and increased costs involved in repurposing a historic building, the scales are tipped against adaptive reuse developers. And, by extension, against historic churches.

Adaptive reuse is a hard and expensive sell. Nicholas Melisiotis, one of the developers who purchased First African Baptist Church in 2016 for $1 million, explains that churches are particularly hard to adapt. “They’re not an optimal layout for a lot of uses,” Melisiotis says. “You have beautiful architectural features, but you don’t have optimal space layout.”

Old factories, which are often just one big space, are easier to carve up.

Shiloh Baptist Church at 2040 Christian was designed by Fraser, Furness, and Hewitt in 1868. It has since been turned into a performance venue.

Philadelphia nevertheless has some successful examples of church conversions. The residential units at Sanctuary Lofts in Graduate Hospital integrate original architectural details of the former late 19th-century Saint Anthony of Padua Catholic Parish. Brian Sanders’s JUNK, an avant-garde dance company, customized part of Shiloh Baptist Church at 2040 Christian as a rehearsal and performance space.

And construction is almost complete on the repurpose of a 13,000-square-foot section of 24,000-square-foot First African Baptist Church in Graduate Hospital. Once used as a Sunday School, it is slated to reopen this fall as Aspen Grove School, an early childhood learning center. Plans for the soaring main sanctuary, which at one point accommodated some 2,000 congregants, are still being considered.

Christopher and Emily Stromberg of S2 Designs, a husband-and-wife design studio, have lived across from First African Baptist Church for more than a decade and watched with growing concern when one of the exterior walls started teetering. The congregation couldn’t afford to repair the church, which was designed by Watson & Huckel, a noted architecture firm responsible for designing dozens of churches in the area.

When the church began to fall into disrepair, Christopher, who has been on the zoning board of the South of South Neighborhood Association in the past and witnessed the demolition of neighborhood churches, approached Nicholas Melisiotis, who was a former client and in the market for his next big development project.

“I knew that Nicholas would be the type of developer who would take this on as a challenge and appreciate the building, and do the right thing,” Christopher recalls. “Once it hit the airwaves, 50 developers came in and started offering crazy amounts of money. Then, the historic designation came through and 75 percent of the other people left. But Nicholas stuck with it.”

The stained glass has been preserved at First African Baptist Church, half of which will re-open this year as a daycare.

Melisiotis bought the church with a partner, William Vessal, in 2015 for $1 million and hired S2 Designs to redesign the interior. Both partners have worked on historic buildings in the past and own other historic buildings in various stages. Vessal developed a historic 7,000-square-foot Society Hill townhouse at 814-16 Pine Street.

“The easiest thing to do is tear the building down and start from scratch, but it wouldn’t serve the history of the church or the neighborhood,” says Melisiotis, who lives in a historic home in the area. “I think it would take away from the neighborhood if it lost another significant building.”

That said, developing a historic property—and in particular, a church—is not without its challenges. Cost can be prohibitive, since the custom reproduction of original architectural features required for the exterior and, in some cases, for certain interior details adds up quickly. All exterior work needs to be approved by the Historical Commission as well, which can be a tedious and progress-delaying process.

Shortly after purchasing First African Baptist Church, Melisiotis was approached by the co-founders of Aspen Grove School, Micah Straight and Sharon Jayakumar, who had spent three years looking for the right space to house their new daycare program.

“It’s a very grave responsibility being the first thing that will be happening in that space,” says Straight, a physical therapist. “We feel like a lot of things that stand out about the community in this church highlight so much of the empathy, and diversity, and connectedness that we’d like see in the community that we’re trying to build with the school.”

If the original community of First African Baptist church did inter a time capsule within the stone façade of the church, it must have been an attempt to leave a small part of their history behind in an ever-changing world. The neighborhood is not the one they knew in 1906, and many churches are long gone and erased from Graduate Hospital. But in the process of repurposing First African Baptist Church, its developers, designers, and tenants have turned the building itself into a larger time capsule, inside-out.

It joins a small roster of converted South Philly churches whose unchanged exteriors remind us of the communities that built them, and whose renovated interiors demonstrate the current needs of the neighborhood. Occasionally, things align so that the historic and the contemporary live in harmony.

Editor: Melissa Romero

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