Post updated June 21, 2013
Editor’s Note: As we’ve reported recently, there are some 75 vacant or vulnerable churches in Philadelphia, and many of them are deteriorating rapidly (our top ten most vulnerable are HERE). The Archdiocese of Philadelphia struggles to determine what to do with its massive stock of religious buildings and every day we seem to discover more.
It isn’t easy, of course, to transform a sacred building for a secular use; the cost of conversion can be significant and the spaces itself don’t necessarily lend themselves to other kinds of uses beyond worship and prayer. Or do they? Having grown tired of watching so many of these significant buildings deteriorate or be demolished, and having seen creative uses of old churches and religious buildings in other US cities and around the world, we’ve long sought to promote the idea that Philadelphia needs the scale and beauty of its religious buildings and therefore must find ways to keep them alive.
At the beginning of last year, we reported on the reuse of churches across the city. Now, writer Christopher Mote, who has been covering issues of historic preservation for Hidden City, has researched the best examples of developers, artists, and institutions adapting churches for other, non-religious uses, from apartments to offices to performing arts. There are many more than these, so if you know of a captivating reuse that isn’t mentioned here, please let us know.
1. Christ Reformed Church (Chapel Lofts)
1520 Green Street
Architect: Stephen D. Button, 1860
Reuse: apartments & condos, 2007
Developer Gary Reisner wasn’t the first to envision a Philadelphia church as a living space, but this Spring Garden landmark with brownstone facade and elaborate D’Ascenzo stained-glass windows is possibly the grandest such example to date. When it was added to the local register of historic places in 2000, a Latino congregation had taken over the the church, but they struggled with the building’s steep maintenance costs. With property values on the rise, Reisner, who was known in the neighborhood as an affordable-housing developer, stepped in, spending nearly $3.5 million overseeing the weathered building’s restoration and residential conversion. JK Roller Architects (now known as JKR Partners) configured the interior to accommodate 17 units, saving the most lavish spaces for the upper floor. One of the church’s outstanding features can be traced back to the Wanamaker family: a 17-foot stained-glass window donated by Rodman Wanamaker in 1926 in memory of his grandmother. Details of the original altar also survive.
2. Falls Methodist Episcopal Church (Design Nehez)
3580 Indian Queen Lane
Architect unknown, 1872
Reuse: offices & work space, 2008
With elements of the Greek and Renaissance Revival styles, the former Falls of the Schuylkill Methodist Episcopal is cozily nestled on a steep, very 19th-century block on a uniquely named street. When the shrinking United Methodist congregation closed its doors in 2006, the church seemed likely to sit around as a vacant memento of East Falls’ past. Enter designer Val Nehez, who converted the first floor into an open-office work space for freelancers and small businesses, including her own, Design Nehez; other tenants include Cooper Graphic Design and the vegan bakery Pure Sweets. The church’s unaltered upper floor is still available for lease.
3. Siloam Methodist Episcopal Church (Dominic Episcopo Photography Studio)
1345 East Susquehanna Avenue
Architect unknown, ca. 1860
Reuse: residence & studios, ~2006
As the owner of a very ecclesiastical surname, perhaps Dominic Episcopo was fated to call a church his home. In reality, personal circumstances and rising rents were what led the photographer to up-and-coming Fishtown in the mid-2000s. When he arrived, the Siloam congregation had left its original church–believed to have been dedicated on Christmas Day 1859–and merged with Summerfield United Methodist a few blocks away. Episcopo has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars quietly restoring the church, retaining most of its decorative features while adding a modern upgrade in the form of solar panels to the roof. He lives in the main sanctuary and rents out a few apartments and work studios to cover the mortgage. For a photographer whose A-list clients include local legends like Jill Scott and The Roots, it’s a fine set of digs.
4. Grace Baptist Temple (Temple University Performing Arts Center)
1837-55 North Broad Street
Architect: Thomas P. Lonsdale, 1891
Reuse: music venue, 2010
A $30 million restoration has brought the Baptist Temple, from which its namesake university sprouted, back into the spotlight after three decades of vacancy. Russell Conwell, an early pastor of the Baptist church, founded Temple College in 1884 to meet a growing demand for tutoring congregants. This in turn reinforced the demand for a bigger worship space, which resulted in the temple that stands today. Martin Luther King and Margaret Mead are among the many who addressed audiences in the temple through the years. The temple remained independent from the university until the Baptists left in the 1970s. The converted concert hall, named for broadcaster/Temple donor Lew Klein, seats about 1,200 and has staged scores of musical and dance events, religious gatherings, a TEDx conference and much more in its first three years of action.
5. Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church (National Medical Imaging)
492-98 Roxborough Avenue
Architect: Herman Miller, 1910
Reuse: medical offices
The loss of the Bunting House last year galvanized Roxborough and Manayunk residents into taking a more aggressive stance on preservation. The good news for them is the multitude of churches that survive occupied and reused, including this former Lutheran church whose occupancy is currently in flux. The Romanesque design was produced by Herman Miller, a Roxborough native who began his career with Furness, Evans and Co. Historians know of the church’s pastor, the Rev. William H. Cooper, for his own documentation of the neighborhood’s past as co-author of A Historical Sketch of Roxborough, Manayunk, Wissahickon published in 1940. In the 2000s, the church’s interior served as offices for a branch of National Medical Imaging. After NMI was forced into bankruptcy, the property was sold in 2011 to a dermatologist who has considered renting the space or using it for his own offices. Residents are optimistic, but are taking no outcome for granted.
6. Wissahickon Methodist Episcopal Church (Terrace Street Condominiums)
3849 Terrace St.
Architect: Hales & Ballinger, 1901
Reuse: condos, 2003 (Alex Generalis)
It took a few tries and modifications to get Wissahickon and Manayunk neighbors on board, but the Gothic-spired Wissahickon ME (United Methodist) finally assumed a new life as an eight-unit condoplex in 2003. Developers Miles and Generalis bought the property in 2000, and four investors led by Blake Ingram ultimately realized the project, which cost a cool million, with JK Roller Architects (again) designing the units for conversion. Relatively few artifacts survive at the site, although developer Alex Generalis keeps a few in the uppermost unit where he lives. Adjacent to the much bigger church, an earlier chapel from the 1860s still stands as a testament to the former congregation’s past. As a testament to neighborhood politics, the church basement was also converted to provide a parking garage for the residents.
7. Rothschild Memorial Synagogue (Older Adults Sunshine Center)
137 S. 58th St.
Architect: Louis Levi, 1915
Reuse: community center, 1995
In 1914, Edward L. Rothschild gifted a synagogue and Hebrew school to Congregation Beth El in Cobbs Creek in memory of his parents. The structure was designed in the Romanesque style by Louis Levi, whose more famous synagogues still stand in Washington, DC and his native Baltimore. At its height, Beth El was reputed to have the largest Hebrew school in the city, but by the 1960s out-migration to the suburbs had depleted the space. In 1970, the congregation merged with Beth Hillel (now Congregation Beth Hillel-Beth El) and relocated to Wynnewood. To serve the now predominantly African-American community, the property was sold to Temple of Faith Baptist Church in 1972. (The school building had been destroyed by fire a year earlier.) In 1994, the building was acquired by The Consortium, a mental health nonprofit, and reopened as the Older Adult Sunshine Center, and continues to provide recreation, education, and counseling services. Most of the Judaica is gone, but the mosaic tiles and the original identifying marker above the entrance live on.
8. St. Agatha Roman Catholic Church (The Cloisters)
3801-07 Spring Garden St.
Architect: Edwin Forrest Durang, 1878
Reuse: apartments, 1990s
This work of renowned architect Edwin Forrest Durang retains most of its fine exterior, but the modern-day roof additions give it away as a residential conversion. Not being on the local register, it wasn’t the most obvious candidate for reuse. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed St. Agatha’s parish in 1979 and merged it with St. James the Greater (another Durang work) to become the Church of St. Agatha and St. James. In the late 1980s, local designer Caroline Millett acquired and began renovating the run-down property with the mission of stabilizing the surrounding neighborhoods of Mantua and Powelton Village. Millett’s initiative, conceived by architect Frank Weiss, was to construct an eight-story box for residential units within the church itself. Pennrose Properties later finished the conversion of the church into moderate-income apartments. The quality of life in the neighborhoods has much improved in the ensuing years, and The Cloisters, which preserve the details of the church’s altar and baptismal font, are seen as a unique and desirable address.
9. Third Baptist Church/Neziner Synagogue (Neziner Court Condominiums)
771-75 S. 2nd Street
Architect unknown, c. 1809
Reuse: condos, 1985
On the local register since 1958, this Federal-style building served two tours of duty as a house of worship, taking the opposite route from Rothschild Synagogue. While little is known about the original Baptist congregants, the Queen Village neighborhood was transformed by the rise of Eastern European immigrants in the late 19th century. The Neziner congregation took over the site in 1889, developing into a Hasidic worship space for immigrants originating from Belarus, Poland, and Lithuania, and lasted until 1983. A straightforward structure to adapt with a comfortable set back from the street, the property now serves as eight residential units.
10. St. Luke’s Lutheran Church (3rd Ward)
1227 N. 4th St.
Architect unknown, 1854
Reuse: factory, 1880s; coworking and learning space, 2012
Some reuses can be unintentional–or perhaps they appear that way when they pre-date the idea of adaptive reuse by a full century. The Brooklyn-based 3rd Ward’s new South Kensington location now occupies a space that has served an industrial purpose much longer than in its first incarnation. Philip Houck and Son Paper Box Manufactory opened here in the heyday of Kensington’s industrial era. Houck constructed the three-story addition to the simple yet identifiable church building. The eclectic past plays well into the 3rd Ward’s mission as a place for collaborative working and artisanal instruction. Developers Paul Maiello and David Belt have refitted the property, carefully gesturing to (and sometimes playing with) its layers of history to serve a fluctuating but diverse community.
Author’s Note: Special thanks to Rachel Hildebrandt and Partners for Sacred Places for their feedback and resources in compiling this list.
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