The former Second Baptist Church, a stucco-swathed curiosity tucked away on a back street facing I-95 in Northern Liberties, is slated for demolition. Developer Pelican Properties is planning to replace the building at 924-28 New Market Street with five townhouses, and has gotten a green light for the project from the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association and the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Before an excavator starts tearing into the facade, though, (and good luck getting something demolished post-22nd and Market collapse), a history of this much-abused house of worship is in order. The structure dates back to 1803, a time when the neighborhood of Northern Liberties was an independent town that was part of the larger Township of Northern Liberties.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly passed an act on March 28, 1803, to incorporate Northern Liberties into a political body. That same year, 20 Baptists received permission from the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia to establish the first church in the neighborhood. This church, Second Baptist Church, was dedicated on December 15th, 1803, and was built on the west side of New Market (previously Budd) Street between Poplar and Laurel. This appears to be the same structure that stands on this spot today.
New Market Street near Poplar Street was sparsely settled at that time, as this early account from History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 attests:
“There were then almost no houses of any description to be seen. An open country presented in almost all directions divided into fields of grass or grain with ditches on either side of the great highways. There are those now living in the region who can remember when the whole of Laurel Street from Second to Budd Street was an immense elevated gravel bank.”
The Baptists also purchased land around the church for a burial ground. When the congregation decided to relocate in 1871, some 300 bodies were moved from this graveyard to Ivy Hill Cemetery in Northwest Philadelphia. Soon after this, the land was used for the housing seen today on New Market Street, as well as facing the back of the church on Hancock (formerly Rachel) Street.
A replacement home for Second Baptist Church was built at 961–71 North Seventh Street for $93,500. Dedicated on March 18, 1875, this brownstone pile designed by Addison Hutton now houses the Mt. Tabor African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the principal African Methodist Episcopal churches in Philadelphia.
The 1803 Baptist building on New Market was sold in 1873 to a Jewish group for $19,000. The building gained the moniker “Hebrew Church” as it hosted a progression of Jewish congregations, a sign of the neighborhood’s swelling Jewish population in the late Nineteenth Century. First, Congregation Anshe Emeth refitted it as a synagogue. That group then merged with the Sons of Halberstam; in 1891, Congregation D’rshe Tov took over. The building remained a Jewish temple well into the twentieth century.
In 1965, the AA Fence Co. moved in, and adapted the building to its needs, cutting three crude garage doors into the facade, one of which served as a loading dock. The building narrowly missed being flattened in the early 1970s for Interstate 95, which passes directly across the street, but it looks like it won’t escape this time.
Much of this story was adapted from Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (History Press, 2012).