On Front Street, A Warehouse With A Sacred Past Seeks Salvation

 

Second Associate Presbyterian was abandoned by its congregation in 1954 for the suburbs and has spent its days as a building supply warehouse ever since | Photo: Oscar Beisert

Last fall, a handsome, weathered two-story red-brick “warehouse,” the former Second Associate Presbyterian Church, and a collection of its attached buildings and the adjacent vacant lots of 1523-25 North Front Street below Oxford Street in South Kensington went up for sale with a $2.1 million price tag. On the heels of the real estate listing, I personally submitted an individual nomination for placing the church on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places with the Philadelphia Historical Commission on February 25th.

The future development of the site is inevitable. It is my hope that the church will be reused with new construction on each side, rather bearing witness to another historic block being leveled for new, “high end” garage-fronted construction.

Second Associate Presbyterian Church may be battered and worse for wear, but it is important. The building appears to be the oldest Associate Presbyterian Church building in Philadelphia, the oldest United Presbyterian Church building in Philadelphia, and the oldest Presbyterian Church building in Kensington. Nominally, it is part of the city’s dwindling antebellum built environment that once densely populated North Front Street, the remains of which are slowly being erased by demolition and careless development.

Kensington Was For Presbyterians

The history of Presbyterianism in Philadelphia dates back to the city’s second decade. For the first half of the 19th century, the Presbyterian Church included the following bodies: Old School, New School, Reformed, Associate, Associate Reformed, German Reformed, Dutch Reformed, and Cumberland. While certain of these orders predate the 19th century, most of them developed and evolved within the context of 19th century American culture. By the 1840s, Kensington had no less than 15 Presbyterian congregations, among them the largest in the U.S. Almost all of these disbanded or relocated by the Second World War. A minimum of twenty-five churches were constructed in Kensington for Presbyterian congregations, less than half of which stand today. The oldest Presbyterian congregation in Kensington, the First Presbyterian Church–founded in 1814–still occupies its 158 year old building on Girard Avenue. Second Associate, the converted warehouse on Front Street, stands today as the oldest, and most threatened, Presbyterian church in Kensington.

By the late 1840s, the congregation of the Second Associate Presbyterian Church had outgrown its building on Franklin Street, between Green and Coates Streets–now Fairmont Avenue–and needed a bigger, purpose-built “house of worship.” In typical Scots-Irish tradition, the American Presbyterians were as frugal as their forbearers and not only would their architecture reflect that, but a large portion of the building’s cost would be raised before construction.

Second Associate Presbyterian Church

Second Associate Presbyterian Church Court, 1895 | Photo: “The Presbyterian Church In Philadelphia. A Camera and Pen Sketch Of Each Presbyterian Church and Institution In the City”. Published by William P. White and William H. Scott, 1895

The congregation of the Second Associate Presbyterian Church was organized in 1837 by fifty-some members of the First Associate Presbyterian Church, in Philadelphia proper, allowing more convenient access to those Associate Presbyterians living in Kensington. Just ordained by Philadelphia’s Associate Presbytery, the young and energetic scholar and writer Rev. Joseph T. Cooper, became the congregation’s first pastor in 1839. Cooper would go on to write the Associate Presbyterian’s monthly journal—the Evangelical Repository for 28 years and various other religious texts. Cooper founded several Sunday Schools, including those that would reorganize to become the First Associate Presbyterian Church, Frankford, and Norris Square United Presbyterian Church. By the 1850s, Cooper and his congregation had established their own successful Sunday School—a student body that once filled five large cars of the Norristown Railroad Company. In 1858, Cooper moderated the convention in Pittsburgh that led to the merger of the Associate and Associate Reformed Presbyterian Churches to form the United Presbyterian Church of North America. Considering all of this, it did not hurt that Cooper had dropped himself and his congregation in Kensington—then America’s hotbed of loom-spinning, factory-working Presbyterians–when Cooper finally left the congregation in 1871 to undertake his professorship at the Allegheny Seminary.

Recessed from the east side of North Front Street, the length of a box-band house with a one-room “el,” the two-story red-brick church has been situated in a court-lot since construction began in 1849. While fully visible in 2015, the building was once obscured by the row houses that crowded North Front Street, blocking the northwest and southwest corners of the church. Similar to the design of Carpenter’s Hall, the church’s primary entrance is at the center of the building, visible only from North Front Street. However, more indicative of religious court configurations, the cartway was replaced by a yard and footway to the entrance. While conservative in the architectural embellishments of their house of worship, the Presbyterians still achieved a handsome Greek Revival façade with quiet Georgian antecedents.

The Foundation Of A Family Business

The warehouse sign reads, “James Scollon’s Sons, Inc. Building Construction & Repairs, Since 1885,” and indeed today, the former church is owned by Thomas D. Scollon, Jr. In Philadelphia, James Scollon’s Sons appears to have been established in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. However, the involvement of James Scollon and his sons, and the acquisition and conversion of Second Associate into the company’s outpost, would come later much later.

Deceptive advertising | Photo: Oscar Beisert

After leaving his father’s home in Sadsbury, Chester County, Thomas Dallas (1859-1921) made a decision that would prove to be the foundation of his lifelong career as building contractor when he became an apprentice bricklayer. Making his way north to Philadelphia, Thomas Dallas wed a first-generation German-American, Paulina Bicker, in 1884 at the Salem-Zion United Church of Christ, Kensington. However, by the time their second daughter, Elsie Eleanor Dallas, was baptized in 1892, the family was attending St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church at Third Street and Columbia Avenue. The family lived at 418 Norris Street–a brick house, likely built by Dallas himself. By 1910, Elsie married James Scollon, who was then a journeyman bricklayer—no doubt working for his father-in-law, Mr. Dallas. The young couple lived nearby at 2139 Orianna Street, where they would remain through the 1920s. James and Elsie Scollon would go on to have five children–Thomas, Paul, and James, Jr., all of whom were working in the family business by 1940.

The view from an alley reveals vertical windows that stretch down the sides of the former church | Photo: Oscar Beisert

In 1954, a few blocks from the 422 Norris Street, a two-story red-brick church at 1523-25 North Front Street was abandoned by its congregation for a suburban location and reorganization, after which the Presbytery of Philadelphia sold the building. Thomas Scollon bought the church in 1965 for $5,400 and converted it into a warehouse. Scollon mounted his businesses sign over a marble tablet beneath the front-gabled pediment—the marble likely inscribed, “The Second Associate Presbyterian Church, 1837.”

The Scollons converted this building from church to warehouse likely because of its obvious versatility and then made almost no other changes. Perhaps they recognized its architectural importance. Maybe they cared about their ancestral neighborhood. Probably, they didn’t want to put money into it. Hopefully the next owner of this piece of history will see its value and and its future will be secured by a third, enduring conversion.

About the author

Oscar Beisert is an architectural historian and preservationist activist. The Texas Wend is of both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Beisert co-authored The Photography of Henry K. Landis He is mid-level bureaucrat in federal historic preservation, has just finished his second row house conversion/restoration project, and can be found at almost every Wednesday night at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.



9 Comments


  1. Hopefully someone will recognize the level of taste you have outlined.

  2. A developer who already owns most of the 1500 block is in negotiations with the owner to buy it. Currently, the owner’s price of $2 million is too high.

  3. I was also moved by the related action of razing the former Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ at Marlborough and Belgrade streets for new house construction in Fishtown: http://romanblazicwordsandpictures.blogspot.com/2015/02/fishtown-razing-church.html

    • Yes, Roman Blazic, I am moved by the fact that people who devote their life to something, like construction and development, yet have no interest in “place” and/or in doing something interesting and enduring, when they can still making a good living and also improve something that is permanent. One observes countless demolitions of stone and/or brick buildings for cheaply built townhouses that have no renewable qualities, requiring almost all of its materials to be replaced within a few decades? Thank you for sharing your post!

      • Antoinette Scollon

        Mr. Beisert

        While I totally support your intentions and the research that has gone into your well written article I would think that before you replied to the above post you would have at least attempted to contact the owners of this property before you unilaterally decided that they “have no interest in ‘place’ and/or in doing something interesting and enduring…”

        The pen is mightier than the sword and I would think that before yielding it you could have at least stopped for one moment and considered circumstances.

        I admire your work in attempting to preserve the area.

        • Ms. Scollon,

          Thank you for your comments. In the last lines of the article you will see that I only entertained ideas, recognizing that the warehouse conversion did save the building at an earlier period.

          My comment “have no interest in ‘place’ and/or doing something interesting and enduring…” was in reference to the type of development that I have observed in the area. For example, a brick and stone church is being demolished a block east of Second Associate. Built in the 1840s (I think), that church is being taken down for a row of garage-fronted townhouses that are normative in suburbia. Like Second Associate, that church was a simple, box-like building and could easily have been converted into apartments. The only explanation for this kind of behavior is greed. For these reasons, I have considered the circumstances and I hope Second Associate will be preserved.

          Sincerely,
          Oscar Beisert

  4. I’ll spill the beans. Roland Kassis is going to acquire it. He has a pretty good record with preservation.

  5. BRAVO!! and well said Oscar Beisert. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, and seeing more and more of our cities historic past be erased and replaced by “careless development” is something that needs to be recognized, addressed and taken seriously. On the heels of an announcement that the historic Mt. Sinai Hospital building in Pennsport has received a demolition permit, and will soon suffer the same fate, it is equally as important to save the religious institutions that helped shape the character of our Philadelphia neighborhoods.
    Thank you for your thoughtful piece about this amazing diamond in the rough!

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