A Last Look at Second Baptist Church

 

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2013

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2013

For decades, the AA Fence Company building on New Market Street in Northern Liberties was something of an architectural mystery. The two-story structure stood mid-block on a dead-end street that bordered Interstate 95, its facade almost entirely covered by a thick mask of stucco. It looked like it was once church, most likely, or perhaps a theater or fraternal lodge.

Harry Kyriakodis was able to clear things up quite a bit when he wrote about the building in the Hidden City Daily last summer, after plans for demolition were first made public. It was built as the Second Baptist Church in 1803, became a synagogue in 1871 and remained a Jewish temple until well into the 20th century. Here’s the building in 1959:

The Second Baptist/Hebrew Church in in 1959, pre-stucco.

The Second Baptist/Hebrew Church in in 1959, pre-stucco.

The AA Fence Co. purchased the building in the early 1960s, and adaptively reused the heck out of it, cutting three garage doors into the facade, and slathering on the aforementioned layer of stucco. Now, like many of the neighborhood’s oddball structures, it will be replaced by condos.

It’s not exactly an even trade, but the demolition of Second Baptist has at least provided a tantalizing glimpse into the building’s history. Underneath the stucco was a large tablet made of sandstone with the name of the building–“Hope Meeting House of the Second Baptist Church”–and the dates when it was built and remodeled.

Photo: Christopher Mote

Photo: Christopher Mote

The tablet seemed like an obvious thing to save–there are two architectural salvage companies within five blocks–but that didn’t happen. The foreman on the job site said that taking down such a heavy piece of stone intact would be too expensive, so the workers let it fall and it broke on impact.

The contractors took down the rest of the facade over the following weeks, revealing the intricate truss-work supporting the roof, and the fluted cast iron pillars in the basement. The windows on both the north and south walls were a reminder that the structure was still free-standing with an adjacent cemetery when it was remodeled in 1860.

Lions of Judah still visible above the altar | Photo: Peter Woodall

Lions of Judah still visible above the altar | Photo: Peter Woodall

Barely visible in the back of the building were traces from when it was used as a synagogue. Above what had once been the altar were a pair of lions–the Lions of Judah in Jewish iconography–flanking a tablet with what is probably the Ten Commandments written in Hebrew characters. There was nothing to indicate when the wall had been painted. Perhaps it was commissioned after Congregation Anshe Emeth purchased the building from the Baptists in 1871, or when Congregation D’rshe Tov moved in 20 years later. This type of wall painting was once common in both Europe and the United States, but apparently very few remain. A similar but far more elaborate painting that also depicts the Lions of Judah, known as the Lost Shul Mural, is being restored in Burlington, Vermont as an example of Jewish folk art.

Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall

Photo: Peter Woodall

Interior of the building, 2103 | Photo: Harry Kyriokodis

Interior of the building, 2103 | Photo: Harry Kyriokodis

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.



6 Comments


  1. Very cool history and photos!

  2. Too expensive? He should be ashamed of himself. That’s a part of Philadelphia history, and he doesn’t salvage it because it’s “too expensive”?

  3. Glad to see this mess is finally gone. Even a empty lot would be an improvement over this monstrosity and fire trap. Good riddance, and good day, sir.

    • That is some of the most ridiculous, delusional nonsense I have ever heard.

      That building is a part of Philadelphia history. Show it the respect that it deserves.

  4. Great article on a building that has fascinated me for years. It is such a shame that the stone was not saved, and also that the Lions of Judah will exist only as photographs–though they are wonderful photographs. But I feel very sad that this quirky building with its strange, chequered past is no more.

    Redrum, you are being a crab. Sir.

  5. Throughout all of the Urban Pioneering years and onwards, I’ve hoped this structure (known for years as Ben’s Iron Works) would find someone who’d remove the stucco and then bring it all into the present day with an eye to the future. Very sad at best to hear the big stone was treated with such disrespect. Caught a glimpse into the exposed wooden truss as I was driving down I-95 the other day and even that tiny moment at 55mph was endearing.

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