Saving Grace

 

Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles on preservation produced in collaboration with Grid Magazine for their March 2013 issue. That issue will be released tomorrow evening at a party at the Reading Terminal Market. For more information and to sign up to attend the party, click HERE. While the party is for fun–and it’s free–we’ll also be using it to help bring attention to a DIY preservation cause, the saving of 19th Street Baptist Church in South Philadelphia. The church, which was designed by the firm of Frank Furness, is rapidly deteriorating. If not for the effort of several who have sacrificed time and money to make short term repairs, the church would be certainly lost–just another piece of streetscape to fall through the preservation cracks. Aaron Wunsch, a preservation professor at Penn’s School of Design, will speak about the 19th Street Baptist project and gladly take your donation to help save it. Tomorrow, we will publish the magazine’s feature story on the disputed historic district nomination of Overbrook Farms neighborhood. In the coming days, look for a number of stories connected to that one, including a photo essay and an economic analysis of historic districts.

“Look around us—churches are dropping like flies,” says Lloyd Butler, a deacon at 19th Street Baptist Church in South Philadelphia. It’s a familiar story in a city with some 200 vacant churches; shrinking congregations can’t meet maintenance costs for their old buildings, which sit boarded up until the rare chance they might be reused. In some cases a developer will buy out the congregation, knock down the church and build new housing. Butler says he witnessed four demolitions last year alone.

But among endangered churches, 19th Street Baptist, designed by the firm of eccentric architect Frank Furness, stands out—as much for its green serpentine stone as the DIY strategy employed by the community to ensure the church’s survival.

Early photographs show the steeple reaching well over one hundred feet high, but today only a section of the tower’s stone base remains, and a fence cordons off the entire building due to the crumbling façade. When the Department of Licenses and Inspections threatened to demolish the church, a few members of the congregation decided their only alternative was to stabilize the structure themselves.

Typically, before repair work can begin on a historic building, a preservation plan must be in place, engineers must be consulted, and fully insured contractors vetted. These were simply untenable prerequisites for 19th Street Baptist, where large patches of sky were visible through holes in the church’s roof, and plants had begun to grow up from the rotting floorboards. “Those of us with trade skills, we got together and said, ‘Look, how do we keep this building from falling down?’” recalls Butler.

Aaron Wunsch, a University of Pennsylvania professor in historic preservation, explains that many of the city’s worthy buildings have been lost because their stewards wouldn’t roll up their sleeves. “There is such a thing as a grassroots, hands-on approach to preservation that necessarily complements the institutional approach,” he says.
Wunsch helped the congregation apply to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for a modest emergency repair grant. Then, last winter, Wunsch, Butler (a carpenter), parishioner Vincent Smith (an electrician) and Deacon Blackson filled a pick-up truck with sheet metal and lumber at Home Depot, and began to devise an ad-hoc system to patch the church’s roof.

Over a few weekends, and with under $5,000, they sealed the roof, buying time to raise funds for a formal restoration (former Mayor W. Wilson Goode has helped with fundraising efforts). “It’s true, one of us could have fallen off the roof as we stripped off the rotten asphalt,” Wunsch admits. But the risk has paid off—the building is saved.

About the author

Jacob insulates low-income housing, and makes art. He studied political theory in Oberlin, OH, and is now slowly renovating a house in Strawberry Mansion. On the web: http://future1.net

E-mail him at: jacob.hellman[at]gmail.com



2 Comments


  1. Thank you mister butler. Now if only the historical society and other like minded organizations could adopt
    your way of thinking………….they might actually PRESERVE SOMTHING !! Instead of just giving lip
    service to preservation . It’s a nice thought !

  2. Congratulations to Deacon Butler and 19th Street Baptist Church on receiving this recognition. The Preservation Alliance takes great pride in supporting important efforts like the saving of 19th Street Baptist Church and in being about to enlist Alliance members, businesses and other concerned preservationists from around the city. Thank you 19th Street Bapt. for your committment and for allowing the Alliance to be a part this project.

Recent Posts
A Monumental Shift At Dilworth Park

A Monumental Shift At Dilworth Park

October 24, 2014  |  Vantage

Olin's design for Dilworth Park gives Philadelphia what it has long struggled for: a suitably grand approach to the monumental City Hall, says Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin. Here's his review of the park, now essentially complete > more

Kenney To Hist Commission: Put Buildings On Register, Get More Funding

Kenney To Hist Commission: Put Buildings On Register, Get More Funding

October 24, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Firm would simply recoup money through ads, Councilman Kenney wants to bolster Historical Commission, Councilman Henon undaunted by Planning Commission’s non-recommendation for Mayfair overlay, and Guinn hard at work on latest mural > more

Bill Seeks To Preempt Tragedy With Better Data For Firefighters

Bill Seeks To Preempt Tragedy With Better Data For Firefighters

October 23, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Blueprint reconnaissance for firefighter safety, improvements to the Burk Mansion, City Council considers beautification of vacant land by former convicts, and more inaction on PGW sale > more

Why The Flying Saucer Deserves Your LOVE

Why The Flying Saucer Deserves Your LOVE

October 22, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Preservation Alliance calls iconic LOVE Park building a “place to save,” zoning changes introduced for parts of North Philly, another firm for the Navy Yard, and a sinking pharmacy in South Philly > more

The Missing Namesake Of North Philly's Lost Necropolis

The Missing Namesake Of North Philly’s Lost Necropolis

October 21, 2014  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Next up in our Halloween cemetery series: Harry K hits the tomes looking for the missing obelisk of Monument Cemetery. Is it sitting in a gravestone dumping ground at the foot of the Betsy Ross Bridge? Its fate may be forever unknown > more

Of Birds And Drinking Water

Of Birds And Drinking Water

October 21, 2014  |  Morning Blend

Inside the East Park Reservoir, Temple students adopting blocks, UCD to start early on 40th Street plaza, and Jewish life gets a boost at Penn > more