Inside A Stone Castle, They Wish To Throw Up More Bricks

 

Mother Bethel | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Mother Bethel | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

I have great admiration for Mother Bethel pastor Mark Kelly Tyler. He has shown genuine leadership on the schools crisis and has almost singlehandedly refashioned the legacy of Richard Allen, one of the most daring, innovative, and foresighted men in the history of the United States. (As part of the History Making Productions team and in partnership with Reverend Tyler, I helped make a film on Allen’s life and legacy of Allen.) The church is one of the great pilgrimage sites for black Christians; many of them to learn about Allen and visit the Richard Allen museum there, others because the church itself has been a place of enormous importance in the spreading of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) movement.

Everyday inside his monumental church Tyler feels this legacy. “We live in it,” he told me. This is why he stands resolutely opposed to a proposed four story, six unit apartment building opposite the church, at Sixth and Lombard Streets.

Against the wishes of its architecture committee, Philadelphia Historical Commission, which governs all new construction in the Society Hill Historic District, where both Mother Bethel and the lot stand, has approved the contemporary design for the building, to be finished in gray stucco and glass, designed by architect Stephan Potts for developers Pamela Ying Jin and James Nga Kuk Li.

Proposed apartment building at Sixth and Addison | Image: Stephan Potts Architects

Proposed apartment building at Sixth and Addison | Image: Stephan Potts Architects

Tyler, in talking to Daily News reporter Valerie Russ, conceded that he likes the design, just for somewhere else. “It doesn’t fit in with the historic character of the community. It would be a beautiful building somewhere else. But it’s hideous where they want to put it.”

“What that building feels like,” he said in an interview this afternoon, “it’s not right. No one says you have to build old-fashioned, we’ve said we don’t care for that style and that size right in front of us. I represent not just the 600-700 people of this congregation and the people of the neighborhood, but the hundreds of thousands who come through here every year. When they step out of here, the building shouldn’t jar them or shake them.”

In the wide view, this seems like a double standard. The present Mother Bethel was finished in 1890 (a century or so after Allen became the first black man in America to own land by purchasing the corner of Sixth and Lombard), the fourth iteration of Allen’s church, this one in the Richardson Romanesque Style, in vogue at the end of the 19th century. The Mother Bethel tower has always suggested to me the church that stands at the center of every French village, for indeed that’s its influence: Medieval France, assuredly not Federal Philadelphia.

So how do the people inside a mostly stone church that looks a lot like a castle and towers over its neighbors have anything to say about a slightly outsized apartment building that–as the church itself did once–seeks some measure of the contemporary?

Reverend Tyler puts it simply: “What we say should mean something. We care about the experience of this place, whether that’s inside or outside.”

Mother Bethel, completed in 1890 | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Mother Bethel, completed in 1890 | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

I wondered if the real issue was the height of the building. Certainly the new building will block some afternoon light from illuminating Mother Bethel’s windows. That’s a shame, but any building on the site, now a parking lot, is going to have the same impact.

Tyler is true to his word about the experience outside the church being as important as inside. In his tenure, parking lot that sits adjacent to the church on the corner of Lombard Street has been upgraded (though still a surface parking lot on a main corner), the brick sidewalk rebuilt, and a church-owned building across the street was rebuilt.

The lot, in some of its contexts | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

The lot, in some of its contexts | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

But the thinking that says the planned apartment building “doesn’t fit” with the surrounding streetscape is based on a narrow view that a city or a city neighborhood can be held still in a certain architectural moment (while indeed all of society changes around it).

It’s also based on a misreading of context as an abiding architectural constriction. What exactly is the context for this planned little apartment building? Is it the shamshod tiny brick 1970s row houses on the corner across from Mother Bethel? A building from 1790 or 1890? Or is it the polychromatic turn of the century Byzantine Revival B’nai Abraham synagogue just around the corner (minus its once soaring onion domes lost to lightening some years ago)? What is jarring and what isn’t? Which contexts matter?

To Tyler, the only context that matters is the church’s history and its standing. It can’t be denied. “We’re going to use whatever power we have to change this,” he said. Allen himself presided over many attempts by the wider white Methodist movement to take over his church. He stubbornly, angrily, prevailed (even winning a Supreme Court case in 1817 that gave the AME members the right to manage their own church).

Beyond this one site, however, the very real consequences of such reactionary architectural protest is to make it ever more difficult to design a building in Philadelphia that will look and feel like 2013. Developers who have even a slight impulse to employ contemporary architecture must think twice–and most will just fall back on the ye olde. Tyler told me that isn’t his intent, but it certainly is the desire of many of the Society Hill residents who have lined up behind him.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



6 Comments


  1. What business does a pastor have in trying to dictate the architecture of a new building that will enhance the area. He should stick to tending to his congregation, perhaps if the so called “pastors” of today stuck more to the business of the church there would not be all of the social problems that exist.

  2. Actually I agree with Pastor Mark Kelly Tyler. I think everyone in the neighborhood has a right to put in their two cents because the new building will have an effect on the street scape, on their daily lives, and on the value of their properties. The issue is not that the building is contemporary, but that it is entirely divorced from and disrespectful of its surroundings. The materials have no real local precedent, the design doesn’t speak to anything near it, and — even putting the best possible face on this architectural rendering — it looks like a giant cinder block.

    Insofar as the merits of “a building in Philadelphia that will look and feel like 2013,” it’s worth pausing to remember that city has a large cache of buildings that look like 1950, 1960 and 1970, many if not most of which are now considered terrible eyesores, and some of which are being demolished less than half a century after their construction. The mere fact of falling in line with what developers are doing this year doesn’t equal architectural merit. Mother Bethel is an important historic site, in a historic neighborhood, and we’ve seen enough of those blighted by careless and insensitive development that it seems to me this one is worth pausing over.

  3. The issue isn’t contemporary design per se – it’s that this proposal is a very poor example of contemporary design. If the proposal looked like the beautiful contemporary house built on the corner of 4th and Poplar a couple of years ago, I am sure the neighbors would welcome it. In fact, when Society Hill was redeveloped in the 1960s, many contemporary houses were successfully inserted into the 18th century streetscape — most of them at least used materials that related to the traditional building stock of the neighborhood.

    This building looks like one of the dozens of prosaic Harman Deutsch designs that are popular with greedy developers looking for cheap, off-the-shelf designs. It’s a piece of crap and the architect and “developers” should be ashamed of it.

  4. Having worked on the restoration of the church for many years, including writing a detailed history of its design and construction, I know it very well. I know and have great respect for Pastor Tyler and the remarkable congregation, who steward one of the only truly sacred grounds that I’ve ever known. I also know and respect the architects for the proposed building.

    From my perspective, this should not be a question of style, but rather one of color. The magnificent 1890 building is the fourth church that Mother Bethel erected on this site. The first was a wooden blacksmith’s shop that was bought and dragged a few blocks to this site. The second and third churches were rather humble red brick gable structures clearly designed to not make a stink – to blend in. Hazelhurst and Huckel’s church on the other hand, is radical. It is deliberately designed to proudly declare that Mother Bethel isn’t going to hide, they’re not going to blend in. (There’s a long story here – the church is a copy of (well – an improvement of) of another H&H church at 20th and Diamond.)

    This building is strong – built for the ages. This church didn’t sit on the corner – it was hemmed in by red brick homes, the very fabric of the city, the gleaming white marble making a profound statement about the presence of black America just blocks from where the country was founded with less than perfect ideals. Being hemmed in, the magnificent north and south windows weren’t designed to be visible from the outside – their glory was internal. The red brick wasn’t designed to be visible either of course. What was visible, was a glistening and crisp white facade.

    So should the new building be modern or traditional? I don’t see how that matters. What is important is that the new building should visually recede into the background. This can be done with either modern or traditional design. But yes – in this case, it should be red brick. This is not a site for a statement, except for a statement that returns the context of Mother Bethel to a place in which the church can be radical again.

  5. Forgive me for not being overly concerned with what this church thinks is aesthetically pleasing, considering their terrible stewardship of the properties they owned across the street. Under their ownership, 540 and 542 Lombard crumbled into blight (while paying no tax, mind you.)

    Seems their concern for the neighborhood extends only to other peoples’ property.

  6. How about building something other than a grey-stucco, grey/black brick disaster that looks like every other piece of junk apartment building being thrown-up around Philadelphia these days? That thing is ugly, plain and simple.

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