We’re accustomed to the story of a religious building that is reborn as a community center or a condominium complex, but it’s a bit more unusual to hear of a synagogue that becomes a church. (Or vice versa.) The 1911 datestone on the front of North Philadelphia’s New Greater Straightway Baptist Church, which lists the year in both the Julian and Hebrew calendars, is only one of the architectural signifiers of the building’s historic roots and complex religious history.
Originally built in 1888 as the Adath Jeshurun Congregation synagogue, the datestone was laid by the building’s second owners, Congregation Ohel Jacob. After passing through another owner and a re-consecration, the onion-domed building is now in the hands of Greater Straightway and Pastor William Fleming, Sr.
Fleming is no stranger to neighborhood flux, having lived in North Philadelphia since 1943. Now in his second year at the head of the congregation, Fleming balances what he calls the “healthy challenges” that are typical of a small Baptist congregation in in the Ludlow neighborhood: reaching out to a community with changing demographics and maintaining a building that is expecting its 125th birthday next year. Besides leading Sunday services and Wednesday prayer sessions, Fleming’s work ranges from basic renovations of the church’s interior to learning Spanish in order to maintain a positive impact on the growing Latino population nearby. “From where I see things, people are getting along,” Fleming said in praise of the neighborhood’s multi-ethnic identity. Fleming has been involved with many churches throughout North Philadelphia and Manayunk, but none with such rich structural history.
Designed by architect J. Franklin Stuckert, the building’s Moorish-revival architecture is typical of early synagogues in Philadelphia. Circles dominate the exterior: intricate brick and brownstone encircles oculus windows in a pattern reminiscent of an old telephone dial. This type of decorative brickwork was popular in North Philly in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Initially, two bulbous onion domes sat atop towers at the north and south ends of the building. The southern dome was removed sometime after 1931, during its second ownership. Shutters now cover nearly all of the original stained glass, with a few pieces remaining in keyhole-shaped windows visible from street level on Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
“Every day there’s something to be done,” Fleming said of the building, which reportedly lost some of its original interior décor, including its chandelier, under previous owners. “Only when it can be restored to some of its former grandeur can it regain some of its integrity.”
The Philadelphia Historic Commission accepted the building to its register in 1986, and since then only the roof shingles and front doors have changed. “When you have a building as old as it is, it requires a regular, ongoing never-ending process of renovation,” Fleming said. The current renovation project involves the church’s sanctuary room: Fleming hopes to restore some of the room’s former allure.
The well-maintained exterior of the church adds stability to a street that has seen a century’s worth of change. Beginning in the late 19th century, many Jewish families relocated to Ludlow in efforts to move away from cramped quarters in Society Hill and Queen Village. Jewish residents frequented an outdoor market at the corner of Girard Avenue and Marshall Street and used the Route 15 trolley line for weekend leisure in Fairmount Park and West Philadelphia. Congregation Adath Jeshurun purchased the plot at 1717 North 7th Street in 1886 and dedicated the synagogue soon afterward; construction was finished by 1888. The Conservative congregation gained prestige, becoming known for its Friday services and German-translated prayer books. The group stayed on Seventh Street until 1911, when Rabbi Max D. Klein moved his congregation to the intersection of Broad and Diamond Streets, selling the old building to the Congregation Ohel Jacob, which occupied the synagogue for the next five decades.
For a time, the block was lively and prosperous. Adjoining the synagogue, at 1726 and 1728 N. Seventh Street, was a Jewish orphanage. Children played on the streets, neighbors swept their doorsteps each morning, and the lots at 1730 and 1732 were filled with a lush rose garden.
The 1960s brought enormous upheaval for the synagogue, the neighborhood, and Philadelphia’s Jewish population. Adath Jeshurun left Broad and Diamond Streets for Elkins Park in 1960, endemic of a widespread Jewish migration from North Philadelphia to the surrounding suburbs. Ohel Jacob left the neighborhood too: in 1967, it sold the Seventh Street synagogue to Shalom Baptist Church. The orphanage was turned into apartments. The rose garden withered and filled with liquor bottles and old tires.
“It’s things like the rose garden and the orphanage that give this block its own special history,” Maida Odom wrote of the area in a 1988 Philadelphia Inquirer article. “Now, there is a sad sameness to the blocks that surround it. The decline of the 1700 block of North Seventh is similar to what has happened to many blocks in North Philadelphia – the poorest, most desolate part of the city.”
As owners left and renters drifted elsewhere throughout the next three decades, the neighborhood emptied. “31 percent to 40 percent of the houses are vacant,” Odom wrote in 1988. “They were left empty because owners moved; others died. Absentee landlords allowed the houses to fall into disrepair, and some resident homeowners could not afford to make repairs. In the end, many homes became the city’s burden, the unwelcome spoils of unpaid taxes; others were abandoned just to rot.”
The City of Philadelphia became the block’s largest landowner. Bulldozers turned Victorian townhouses into piles of bricks and wood and twisted metal. The detritus was often left to decay. Today, only a few structures remain from before the demolition, including a 1915 multi-family apartment with original Victorian wood carvings and a stone church. Like its neighbor, this church has switched religious affiliation: it was once a German Lutheran church and now houses a Pentecostal congregation.
In 1982, Greater Straightway bought the building from Shalom Baptist and began to attract new members. The structures on the block remained largely unchanged until 2005 when the Philadelphia Housing Authority teamed up with local developer Association de Puertorriqueños en Marcha to bring the neighborhood back to life. PHA built 22 scattered-site units on the 1700 block of North Seventh Street. The houses were built with market-rate features, such as private backyards, off-street parking and central air conditioning, but were rented and sold at an affordable rate.
Pastor Fleming sees financial troubles as being endemic of small congregations attempting to maintain historic buildings, as according to Fleming the church has not received any financial assistance from state or local institutions. However, despite the financial shortfalls of the Congregation, Fleming still finds a way to impact the community. “We don’t have the comfort of being able to take money out of the coffer,” Fleming said of balancing his daily challenges. “We’re still trying to reach people and so, of course, cultural differences are a challenge for us to overcome.”