As renovation of the historic Baptist Institute for Christian Workers in South Philadelphia nears completion, its new identity waits on deck. The Department of Veterans Affairs leases the building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to serve the needs of vets recovering from addiction and homelessness.
The 40-bed facility, which will be known as the Snyder House, is scheduled to open its doors by Thanksgiving, says VA spokesperson Jennifer Askey.
“Veterans will be offered individual and group therapy, education related to medical conditions, health and wellness classes, computer skills classes, housing support services, vocational support services, chaplain services and family support services,” she says.
The use as a transitional living center is in keeping with the Baptist Institute’s social justice legacy from the late 19th century, when the settlement house was pioneered in major industrial cities. Like Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, the Baptist Institute was geared toward ameliorating the quality of life of the working classes. In South Philadelphia’s case, it served a population that was largely male and Italian.
Construction began in 1911, but was only completed in 1929 with the addition of the fourth floor. The building occupies an irregular parcel of land between Broad and 15th Streets and Snyder and Passyunk Avenues. A daycare center currently operates out of the Passyunk storefront.
The Snyder House also marks the second time that the U.S. government will lease the property. In 1952 the Navy briefly occupied the building, after the Baptist Institute, at that time a junior college, had relocated to the Main Line. From 1958 onward, the building’s primary use was as the Crown Nursing Home. After that, until recently, it was known as the Cambridge Retirement Community.
The Baptist Institute’s design came from the desk of Benjamin Rush Stevens, who started in the prolific firm of brothers G.W. and W.D. Hewitt before branching off on his own. The Carnegie Library in Manayunk, now being converted into condominiums, is his other major extant work.
Stevens’ design for the building—Jacobean mixed with late Gothic—was, and mostly still is, peculiar for its era and location, as the National Register nomination, prepared by Jeffrey Cohen and George Thomas in 1980, observes.
“The vocabulary chosen was particularly powerful in the area, as if the Baptists wanted to confront these recently arrived Italians with and English tradition of conscientious humanitarianism akin to the private endowment of universities,” they wrote.
The Snyder House had been slated to open in the fall of 2012 when renovations began last year. Askey cited the complexities of rehabilitating an old building as part of the reason for the delays. The building’s 21st Century conversion has required new plumbing, as well as the installation of electrical and security systems. Surrounded by an increasingly eclectic mix of Flemish Revival houses, old refitted banks, newer retail chains, and mid-century specimens such as South Philadelphia High School and the Melrose Diner, this aspiring philanthropic gem in a high-density, high-traffic community continues to hold down the fort.