Three Key Historic Neighborhood Buildings Recommended For Register


First African Baptist Church, the oldest African American congregation in Pennsylvania, the 19th century West Philadelphia block of 3600-3630 Lancaster Avenue, and the Edward Corner Marine Merchandize Warehouse on Delaware Avenue–each vulnerable to demolition–came closer to legal protection this morning. The three high profile building nominations were approved and recommended by the Designation Committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. If approved by the full Commission on October 9, they will be added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

First African

Big crowd in support of saving the First African Baptist Church from sale and demolition gathered this morning in Room 578 at City Hall | Photo: Michael Bixler

The future of the 105-year-old First African Baptist Church at 16th and Christian–designed by Watson and Huckel–has been uncertain since the City’s Department of License and Inspections cited the building for being imminently dangerous after the east wall began to collapse in June. In addition to L&I’s report, the City has ordered an independent engineering report to balance an assessment of the building’s current condition. As of last Sunday, the church’s congregation continues to hold services inside the sanctuary.

Against the wishes of some members of the congregation and the public, Terrence D. Griffith, senior pastor of First African Baptist since 2001, believes that the church is in irreparable condition and stands as a financial burden and a threat to safety. “It is a 19th century church. The building’s systems are inadequate. It would cost millions to refit,” said Reverend Griffith. “If you want to make it about preservation, you need to put your money where your mouth is.” Rev. Griffith believes that the only recourse for the congregation is to sell the building for $3.2 million to a developer who will demolish the building and redevelop the lot. The congregation has not authorized the plan to sell the church.

The church was founded on June 19th, 1809 by freed slaves from Virginia. Two former members sold themselves into slavery to free Reverend Henry Cunningham, the congregation’s first pastor.

“It was a refuge. A great rock in a weary land,” said Faye Anderson, a supporter of the church.

“For those of us born in Philadelphia, it is horrendous that we are willing to tear this building down and not willing to respect those that came out of slavery and built this church,” said another public supporter.

Mo Booker, longtime congregation member and supporter of selling the church, said that “The idea is more important than the building,” and that true heritage lies within the people, not the church itself.

Photo: Michael Bixler

Edward Corner Marine at Shackamaxon Street and Delaware Avenue is one of the last remaining remnants of Fishtown shipping history | Photo: Michael Bixler

After the contentious air settled in the hearing room, Richard Dilworth III, chair of the Committee on Historic Designation, made a point to clarify that recommendation and approval of designation does not factor in the condition of a building when considering a nomination. “If the building were to collapse tomorrow it would still be considered historic. The question of how much it would cost to stabilize and rehabilitate is a financial hardship issue,” said Dillworth.

Public risk from the structural condition of the church will be determined once all engineering reports are examined, said Historical Commission executive director Jon Farnham. “If L&I determined that the building was in danger of collapsing the Historical Commission would not stand in the way of its demolition.”

The Committee voted unanimously to recommend approval of the nomination, which was submitted by architectural historian and Hidden City Daily contributor Oscar Beisert.

The 3600 block of Lancaster Avenue (3600-30), an intact row of Victorian storefronts and apartments, were unanimously approved for recommendation as well. The nomination was submitted by Farnham (a nomination for part of the block, written by Beisert on behalf of the Powelton Village Civic Association, was also approved). The buildings on the block were constructed between 1870 and 1880 by speculator James L. Wilson. The stretch of buildings and their remarkable, uniform cornices are zoned CMX-2 with a 38’ height limit, enticing to student housing developers. The block was restored in 1987 to Secretary of the Interior Standards and remains the most intact Victorian streetscape in West Philadelphia.

Despite developer Michael Samschick’s recent proposals for redeveloping 1100 & 1212 North Delaware Avenue, the distinctive Edward Corner Marine Merchandize warehouse, from 1921, on Delaware Avenue, was also recommended for protection by unanimous vote.

About the author

Michael Bixler is a writer, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place.

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  1. Good recap of today’s meeting. Please take note the correct spelling of my first name is Faye. Thank you!

  2. As I have said before, historical preservation is doable as long as money is available to rehab and a viable use is found for the property. If the Baptist Church is deemed dangerous due to its structural condition and it must come down, so be it as long as the congregation gets the 3.2M from the developer. The congregation can easily repay the state 75K so that money will be used in another project, thus obviating a legal challenge aimed at keeping the building intact. The congregation is free to look for other shuttered churches in good structural condition to host its religious services.

    The Edward Conner Marine building could be rehabbed into condos/apartments. It is not needed to be put under Historical protection as this is an zoning issue with the neighbors. We cannot afford to accord dozens of abandoned factory buildings historical protection as this is a common occurrence all over the city. Historical protection should be reserved for those so deserving of such, not used to “protect” a building under zoning attack as the alternative will lead to developers walking away from the project.

    • James. Take a look around at your city. Did you ever notice how many vacant, empty lots, parking lots, etc. there are in this place that wants to be considered a world heritage city? Historic preservation doesn’t have to be anti-development. I am for historic preservation but I am also for development-I just don’t see why developers feel the need to specifically purchase historic structures for the sake of demolition when there are lots all over town that are either empty or underdeveloped (i.e. parking lots that are abandoned for more than half the day). Developing those lots would actually benefit the historic fabric of the city by making it denser, walkable and safe. I think we can “afford” (to borrow your terminology) and benefit from historic preservation. As Philly is a former industrial city, these so-called “abandoned factories” are a part of our collective past. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be used for development while also being preserved. It is not enough to just preserve a few landmarks (like Independence Hall) and then turn everything else into high-end glassy condos.
      Furthermore, I just want to express my gratitude to Oscar Beisert for the great work he is doing.

  3. I may be wrong, but haven’t buildings on the Register been demolished before?

  4. Jim-sure. that happened recently to the “Sloane” mansion. That doesn’t mean we should give up entirely.

  5. we should be ashamed for letting the buildings and history go by the wayside. Other countries are laughing at us for not having more pride in our history.

  6. Demolition still happens because there are too many loop holes-hardship seems to be the easiest one to “prove”.

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