Safety gates are in place and demolition will soon begin at the church where renowned concert vocalist and Civil Rights pioneer Marian Anderson first began her singing career. 12th Street Development, LLC purchased the nine parcel property at 711 S. 12th Street on July 1st from owners New Hope Temple Baptist Church. A building permit was issued to Ritter & Plante Associates, LLC, a landscape design firm based in Manayunk, on July 30th. The permit provides for the relocation of lot lines, creating twelve distinct parcels from nine, where construction of twelve townhouses will likely occur.
The former Union Baptist Church at 12th and Bainbridge is where Anderson first performed and where her vocal talent was cultivated as a young teen. It is a common misperception, with no help from an incorrect historical marker, that Anderson first began singing at Union Baptist Church’s current location at 1910 Fitzwater Street, where the congregation moved in 1916 when she was 19 years old.
Tough City for Proactive Preservation
Two weeks ago I noticed that New Hope Temple Baptist Church at 12th Street between Bainbridge and Fitzwater Streets in the Hawthorne neighborhood was being vacated. Furniture littered half of the church’s large parking lot. I approached a member of the congregation who was helping with the move. Without offering any other details he told me that the church had been sold.
After pondering the situation for a day, I decided to collaborate with friend Oscar Beisert to nominate New Hope Temple Baptist Church to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. We didn’t yet know who purchased the property or what was planned for it. However, we feared that demolition was likely imminent given the building’s location in a neighborhood where market-driven redevelopment is happening at a breakneck pace.
While compiling the history of the building, I learned that the church was built by Union Baptist Church in 1893; here, the extraordinary contralto Marian Anderson first learned to sing. The church had not been linked to Anderson previously likely because Union Baptist Church occupied the site for only 23 years, from 1889-1916. When Philadelphia’s African American churches were inventoried by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia in 2008, the congregation’s current location at 19th and Fitzwater was linked to Anderson while the previous location at 12th and Bainbridge–the site where she would have first sang–was not. The congregation’s current home was also flagged as a top priority for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places due, in part, to its association with the early life of Marian Anderson.
Oscar and I submitted the nomination to the Philadelphia Historical Commission on August 14th, but it was too late. The developer had applied for a demolition on August 3rd. The demolition permit will take precedent over the nomination because the developer applied for the demolition permit (August 3rd) before the nomination was accepted as “complete and correct” (has not happened, yet). The development process is structured this way so that developers who have done their ‘due diligence’ are not inconvenienced. In this context, ‘due diligence’ means finding out whether the building is on Philadelphia Register of Historic Places; not finding out whether the building should be on the Philadelphia Register. This is problematic when very few properties north of Girard Avenue or south of South Street are on the Philadelphia Register.
The transactions that sealed the fate of this historically significant building, including the sale and permitting process, occurred swiftly and quietly. This rendered it virtually impossible to nominate it before it was too late. This is often the case in South Philadelphia, where developers approach major landowners like congregations. Because many of congregations are struggling to remain viable and sometimes even welcome in their own communities, some take advantage of the opportunity to sell. African American congregations, many historic institutions in their own right, most often sell to buyers who demolish the neighborhood-anchoring properties in order to create bigger lots to fit multiple unit condominiums or row houses.
In the past ten years, seven congregations have sold their historic sanctuaries or are in the process of doing so. The list of churches include Varick Memorial AME Church, Metropolitan AME Church, Mt. Olive AME Church, Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, New Temple Baptist Church, New Hope Temple Baptist Church, and First African Baptist Church. Of these seven, three have been demolished, two are slated for demolition, and the future of another is uncertain. Only one, the former Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, at Grays Ferry Avenue and Fitzwater Street, has been adaptively reused.
The Voice Of a Legend and an Unsung Landmark
The founding of First African Baptist Church in 1809 paved the way for the establishment of other African American Baptist churches in early nineteenth century Philadelphia. The third African American Baptist church established in the city, Union Baptist Church, was founded on September 18, 1832.
Under founder Rev. Daniel Scott, Union Baptist Church rented a lot on Addison Street (then Minister Street) between 6th and 7th Streets. The lot was on the south side of the street and immediately east of James Forten Elementary Manual Training School. On this land, the congregation built its first house of worship, which could seat up to 500. It was completed in 1838.
Union Baptist Church outgrew its Addison Street building by 1887. That year, the congregation purchased the lots at 711 S. 12th, 713 S. 12th, and 715 S. 12th to assemble a site to build. The vacant lots, previously owned by George Gill and wife Elizabeth, were located immediately north of a livery stable at 717-719 S. 12th on a sparsely developed block. In 1899, the congregation erected its second building according to the designs of architect David S. Gendell (1839-1925) there.
Other African American churches were growing, too. According to architectural historian Emily T. Cooperman, “More black churches were constructed or purchased in Philadelphia in the 1880s and 1890s then ever before…As congregations outgrew their former buildings, they purchased property on which to construct new church buildings or they bought existing churches from congregations that had relocated or closed their doors…In both cases, the capability of African American congregations to move into larger, and often elaborate church buildings indicates the growing strength of the African American community in Philadelphia.” About two dozen churches were commissioned by African American churches during this period. Most are no longer occupied by the congregations that built them.
Under Rev. L.G. Jordan, who served the congregation from 1891 until 1896, Union Baptist Church commissioned architect Thomas Bennett to enlarge the congregation’s building by replacing the main facade with a vaguely Moorish front and raising the roof one and a half stories.
On December 18, 1893, the Philadelphia Inquirer described the new building, which was dedicated the previous day: “The church is a three-story building, 44 x 82. The front is of grey brick, rock-faced, trimmed with Ohio limestone. The first story, or cellar, is well lighted and is used for culinary purposes and a drill room for the Boys’ Brigade. The second story or Sunday school room is large, well ventilated and lighted with electricity and divided into five rooms. Two are used exclusively for dressing rooms and two used exclusively for class and committee rooms. The latter two can be thrown into the main lecture room and will seat 450 persons. The third story or auditorium is plain, with stained glass windows, and a swinging gallery that terminates at the pulpit. It is suspended from the main timbers of the roof and is considered by all who see it to be the most unique of its kind in the city.”
By 1913, Union Baptist Church had outgrown its building again, necessitating a move. Anticipating this, the church purchased the lot at the southeast corner of Fitzwater and Martin Streets in 1913. There, the congregation erected a 2,000-seat building according to the plans of Charles Bolton & Son. Its previous building at 12th and Bainbridge could only seat up to 900.
Union Baptist Church moved into the building at 1910 Fitzwater Street in May, 1916. On May 6th, the Philadelphia Tribune reported that the “congregation of Union Baptist Church gathered at the old church… and marched in a body to their new edifice.” Born in 1897, congregation member Marian Anderson was 19 years old at the time of the move.
A Philadelphia Historical and Museum Commission historical marker in front of Union Baptist Church’s current location reads, “World-renowned contralto. As a child, she sang in this church. Toured Europe & U.S. starting in the 1930s. Her concert at the Lincoln Memorial, 1939, drew 75,000 people. First African American in Metropolitan Opera, 1955. Delegate to UN, 1958. Died 1993.” The marker is misleading as it was the congregation’s previous location that saw her formative years.
Marian Anderson’s father, John Berkley Anderson, was a devout member of Union Baptist Church. In Anderson’s autobiography, My Lord, What A Morning, she describes her earliest experience of the church: “Even before I was six I was taken along to church every Sunday, partly, I suppose, to alleviate my mother’s burden of taking care of three children. I would take part in the Sunday school and then sit through the main service. After my sixth birthday I was enrolled in the junior choir of the church.”
She describes her first performance as well, which took place about one year after she joined the junior choir: “I remember the day when Mr. Robinson gave me a piece of music to take home, and another copy to Viola Johnson. It was a hymn, ‘Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd.’ Viola and I were to look it over, and then we would sing it together, she the upper and I the lower part. Mr. Robinson played the melody over for us, and after I heard it enough I could remember it. Viola and I rehearsed it carefully and seriously. Then came the Sunday morning when we sang it in church–my first public appearance.”
The Union Baptist Church community continued to nurture Marian Anderson’s career by allowing her to perform on its stage, which attracted visitors from across the country and by fundraising on her behalf. In her autobiography she explained, “There was no money for [singing] lessons…I should have known that my neighbors and the people at Union Baptist Church would find a way to provide. Mrs. Ida Asbury, who lived across the street from us, and some other neighbors and friends arranged a gala concert at our church…After all expenses, about six hundred dollars was realized, and with that money Mr. Boghetti was engaged to be my teacher.”
Marian Anderson would go on to become the first African American soloist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1955 and the first African American musician to perform at the White House in 1935. After being turned away from Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall due to the color of her skin in 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before the nation. For these reasons and many more, Anderson is a legend.
Because the preservation community does not proactively nominate properties that merit designation quickly enough and because it is difficult to reactively nominate properties that have become endangered, the city is going to lose this irreplaceable building. The historic church symbolizes the tremendous strength of the African American religious community in Philadelphia and Marian Anderson’s immeasurable contributions to our cultural record.
Oscar Beisert contributed reporting to this article.