Hope For 19th St. Baptist?


Photo: Peter Woodall

Winter is closing in, and the most endangered Frank Furness building in the city, 19th Street Baptist Church in South Philadelphia, still has two gaping holes in its roof.

The building’s masonry needs to be repaired, too—and soon. Licenses and Inspection cited the church on 19th and Titan Street for falling masonry in August, and threatened to demolish the building unless it was fixed. L&I gave the church a 60-day reprieve two weeks ago, but the congregation will need help to meet the deadline.

Photo: Peter Woodall

The congregation has been growing older and smaller, and has limited resources, said Associate Minister Vincent J. Smith. “We’re trying to attract the next generation,” Smith said, “but they see that falling down church and don’t think God is in there.”

A diverse group including the Preservation Alliance, several University of Pennsylvania professors, building professionals and former Philadelphia Mayor Reverend W. Wilson Goode Sr., has rallied to help the congregation save the building.

Photo: Peter Woodall

The Preservation Alliance recruited Building Conservation Associates, engineering firm Keast & Hood, and cost estimator Michael Funk to assess the building. Their recommendations for stabilizing the building to a high professional standard run to several pages and carry a steep price tag—perhaps a $100,00 or more.

Coming up with a sum that large probably isn’t a realistic option for the 19th St. congregation in the near term, but there may be other options. Chris Stock, a contractor who specializes in restoring old homes, believes a makeshift solution that uses volunteer labor and donated materials could cost as little as $3,000 to $4,000.

Metal sheeting could be used to cover the holes in the roof, which is steeply pitched, said Stock. Repairing the masonry is more complicated, but still feasible.

Photo: Peter Woodall

“The walls are solid,” said Stock, “The serpentine is a veneer with schist behind it that wasn’t designed to be exposed to the elements. You could take off the serpentine, categorize and store it, then put a skim coat with mortar on the schist. It would be a great stopgap.“ Stock said he’d be willing to manage the project.

Furness’s architecture inspires this kind of response. Most of the architect’s buildings have been demolished, and his fans don’t want to lose another gem. Indeed, 19th St. Baptist is one of the finest examples of Furness’s High Victorian Gothic style. The striking green serpentine stone makes it “the most colorful building ever designed by Furness & Hewitt,” according to Michael Lewis, author of Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind. Originally known as the Memorial Church of the Holy Comforter, 19th St. Baptist is one of the few post-Civil War religious buildings designed by Furness & Hewitt that survives and “by far the mature and original work,” Lewis writes.

Smith said the church has no plans to try to sell or demolish the building. “We’re hoping to have it refurbished,” he said. “We have our dreams hinging on it, and the members of the church are ready and willing to roll up their sleeves.”

Donations can be made payable to 19th Street Baptist Church and sent c/o W. Wilson Goode Sr., 2000 Market Street Suite 550 Philadelphia, Pa 19103

Peter Woodall is the co-editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.


  1. Great article!

  2. Rachel Hildebrandt

    Which professors?

  3. Aaron Wunsch–technically a lecturer in Architectural History at UPenn–applied for a small emergency grant to pay for roof repairs from the National Trust for Historic Places, but was denied. Aaron said he’s thinking about teaching a planning studio to figure out how to fund stabilization and restoration of the building.

    Frank Matero, a Professor of Architecture at UPenn, has also been involved, and may teach a studio in masonry conservation around the church.

  4. From ‘History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884, Volume 2 By John Thomas Scharf, Thompson Westcott’…”At the present time St. Peter’s Church is a strong and vigorous parish…. The Memorial Church of the Holy Comforter, at Nineteenth and Titan Streets, was founded as a chapel of St. Peter’s Church in 1868, and this splendid set of buildings was erected by a devoted member of this parish. An endowment trust for the future and permanent support of St. Peter’s Church was begun in 1872, and now amounts, we believe, to over thirty thousand dollars. The rectory of St. Peter’s Church is No. 717 Pine Street.”

    Margaretta Lewis hired Furness, paid $60,000 cash to build the Memorial Church of the Holy Comforter and in 1878 endowed a trust with $80,000 to fund religious activities for the benefit of the community surrounding the church, a memorial to her parents through missionary funding for religious programs”

    Lawsuits and nastiness aside, one would hope the Holy and wealthy Episcopal Diocese could cough up at least a plan to preserve and commemorate their own heritage and Philadelphia’s fine place.



  1. Architizer Blog » Philadelphia Community Rallies to Save Crumbling Frank Furness Church
  2. Emergency grant for 19th Street Baptist Church gives glimmer of hope for urgent repairs
  3. Patching 19th Street Baptist Church to buy time for its future
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