On the corner of 21st and Christian Streets in Philadelphia stands a Victorian church that has been the center of two very different communities within a changing neighborhood. In the 1860s, 21st and Christian was at the southwestern outskirts of the city, but at the close of the Civil War the area experienced a building boom. Local leaders of the Episcopal Church, itself a fast-growing congregation, believed the burgeoning area needed its own parish, and chose this site in the midst of what was then a predominantly working-class neighborhood. The Church of the Holy Apostles was established in 1868, initially within a modest frame building. Later that year, church leaders enlisted the firm of Fraser, Furness, and Hewitt to create plans for a new structure. George Hewitt was the primary architect.
The congregation flourished, but what set the church apart was the exponential growth of its Sunday school programs. From only 37 students at the outset, the school grew to nearly 500 students in a few years. The church required additions to its facilities in 1873, 1893, and 1903, and a new tower was built in 1902. Hewitt designed each of these additions. Member George C. Thomas, a banker and missionary who was instrumental to these expansions, also understood the importance of the surrounding neighborhood, and bought some of the nearby houses so as to improve the community; some of the structures were converted into low-cost housing. By 1920, the neighborhood was equipped with the “latest modern improvements” for its “respectable and home-loving” population. By 1918 church membership topped 10,000, and the building’s multiple spaces were adapted for community activities, such as Scouts, men’s and women’s groups, basketball, and Bible reading.
Despite the church’s growth, attendance declined in the first half of the 20th century as the fabric of the neighborhood changed. In the face of steadily diminishing membership, the Church of the Holy Apostles relocated in 1945, and Shiloh Baptist Church purchased the building. Shiloh had been founded in 1842 for the city’s African American Baptists in south Philadelphia; one of its first pastors, Jeremiah Asher, was a prominent abolitionist during the Civil War, and according to its records, the church assisted travelers on the Underground Railroad. Having moved through a series of buildings in the area before settling at 21st and Christian, Shiloh quickly instilled itself within the community at its new site; it was home to over twenty groups involved in music, missionary and community work, and church beautification. The church had a packed calendar of events, including visits to other churches, fashion shows, recitals, banquets, children’s programs, guest speakers and musical acts, breakfasts, concerts, and parties. It used each room of the massive church complex, hosting basketball games and the Boy Scouts, and providing roller skating parties in the gymnasium.
At its height, Shiloh served a congregation of roughly 3,000. The new congregation was obliged to renovate and restructure the building to meet their needs, but remarkably, many of the original design elements survive: stained-glass windows, original furniture, tiling, polychromatic brickwork (a Furness signature), and multiple pipe organs. It is the only church designed by Fraser, Furness & Hewitt that is still standing. Like many inner-city churches, Shiloh has seen its membership dwindle over the latter half of the 20th century. With a present congregation of about 200, Shiloh has relied on the assistance of grants, funds, and partnerships with community and preservation organizations in order to maintain the large, complicated church complex. In the past fifty years, the proximity of the church to blighted parts of the city has exposed the congregation to crime and neighborhood deterioration. But recently, new community associations and Shiloh’s outreach activities have positively impacted the area. While many of the rooms of the church are now out of use and filled with relics of a larger, active congregation, Shiloh continues to be a force for positive change and revitalization in its community.
Research: Sarah L. Hunter
Site Photos: Joseph E.B. Elliott
An almost Shakespearian space where a single preacher could teach many small, separated classrooms of children at once will be used by the artist to reconcile the differences between the religion that he was raised to believe in and the questions that he now faces as an adult. Steven Earl Weber’s installation in the Shiloh Baptist Church includes multiple videos and sculptures that enables visitors to experience the Frank Furness-designed church.
Steven Earl Weber
Steven Earl Weber, originally from Ohio, received his BFA (with concentrations in ceramics and glass) from Kent State University. Weber moved to Philadelphia in 1998 and has been working in the arts since his arrival, teaching adults and children in art classes in various places around town, exhibiting his sculpture locally and internationally as well as designing sets & costumes for ballet companies such as Pennsylvania Ballet & Ballet X. Steven Earl Weber is co-founder and director of Kelly & Weber Fine Art Gallery in the celebrated Crane Arts Building in Philadelphia, and teaches ceramics at University of Delaware as an adjunct professor.
In recent years, Philadelphia has struggled with some of the highest gun violence statistics in the nation. Southwest Central Philadelphia, where Shiloh Baptist Church is located, has been one of the worst areas in the city for violent crime. Not far from Shiloh, the neighborhood of Southwest Philadelphia was referred to as a “homicide hotspot” in 1997 by Congressman Chaka Fattah, whose initiative “Groceries for Guns” (co-authored by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown) has removed thousands of guns from the neighborhood’s streets. Sonambulo questions how active or complacent we are in curbing the gun violence that marks not only Philadelphia, but the nation as a whole.
Sonambulo is a “sound sculpture,” formed by an eleven-minute looping sound track that resembles a field recording of a summer rainstorm. The work begins with a loud gunshot that quickly disintegrates into the sound of thunder. Collaborating with a sound engineer, a mathematician, and a computer scientist, Manglano-Ovalle composed Sonambulo from a single gunshot sound, recorded in his Chicago neighborhood. Duplicating and manipulating this sound using fractal equations, the artist reworked the single shot into 385,000 fragments that combine to evoke rolling thunder, rain, and even chirping crickets. Mimicking the ambient, textural qualities of nature recordings used for contemplation and relaxation, the piece paradoxically derives its origin from the shattering violence that literally and figuratively surrounds us. The Spanish word sonambulo means sleepwalker—a person enshrouded in the false safety of sleep while risking real physical harm. Taken as a comment on American culture, the title suggests that we may be dreaming our way through a landscape of imminent danger. Manglano-Ovalle chose to re-create Sonambulo in the former Boy Scout room of Shiloh to remind us to remain vigilant. Yet the piece also holds out a promise of hope: the fractured sound of a random act of human violence is transformed, becoming the sound of a life-bringing act of nature.
Through multimedia installation works, sculpture, and film, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle investigates the global impact of social, political, environmental, and scientific systems. Often working in partnership or employing experts from disciplines including engineering, architecture, genomics, and climatology, Manglano-Ovalle produces objects that are as technically complex as they are conceptually engaging. His early work focused on collaborative explorations with young people in his hometown of Chicago, which led to the founding of Street-Level Youth Media, a community arts organization for youth in 1993. More recently, Manglano-Ovalle has employed genomic and meteorological methodologies to explore identity and the dual promise and threat of technology.
Manglano-Ovalle was born in Madrid and lives and works in Chicago. He attended Williams College, where he got a BA in Art and Art History and Latin American and Spanish Literature; he then completed his MFA in sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. He has had many solo exhibitions internationally. Select group exhibitions include Documenta, Kassel, Germany (1997); the Liverpool Biennial (2004 and 2006); Moving Pictures, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (2002 and 2003); Bienal de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil (1998); and the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2000). He has received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2001), the Media Arts Award from the Wexner Center for the Arts (1997), and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1995).