Tucked away on the sedate 200 block of Fairmount Avenue in Northern Liberties is a rough-hewn, early 19th century building that eludes notice. The simple two story building’s humble beginnings as a church later led to it being used as one of the city’s four major theaters. It tried, and failed, to compete with the Arch and Chestnut Street theaters, both long gone, and the Walnut Street Theater that celebrates its 208th season this year. Heavily altered today, the 210-year-old building now serves as a day care center. Simple and muted, the building carries a rich history of reuse and stands as an unusual relic of the earliest days of the neighborhood.
The Quiet Congregation
Immediately following the Revolutionary War, settlers formed a Northern Liberties hamlet called Campingtown. Here, an initially small Presbyterian congregation found itself thick with members and in need of a proper church (a house had been used until then). Dr. Ashebel Green and Dr. Janeway, the collegiate pastors of the Second Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, raised funds for the new church, and William Coates, who owned much of Northern Liberties, donated a large piece of land on Coates Street, known today as the 200 block of Fairmount Avenue.
The quiet location was ideal for a church. Parishioners named the 80′ x 60′ brick building the Church in Campingtown and opened its doors for worship services on April 7th, 1805. Nine years later, membership was high and the congregation was incorporated by both the Philadelphia Presbytery and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The church received the official title of the First Presbyterian Church of the Northern Liberties.
The congregation began a Sunday school a few years later and eventually expanded into weekday instruction. In the summer, Sunday sermons were held outdoors, attracting “sabbath breakers” who would have otherwise never gone to church. In 1816, the congregation held a large revival meeting, attracting new converts and creating a need for more space. First Presbyterian officials completed a new three-story section in the summer of 1818: a lecture hall on the first floor classrooms on the second and third. The addition is the surviving section of the structure that stands today at 209-11 Fairmount Avenue and it looks relatively similar to how it did in 1818.
The costs of the addition almost ruined the church financially. Members took out loans and grew dependent on revenue generated from a day school that opened in the new lecture hall, but the school failed to prosper and closed. The church’s board of trustees spent 10 unsuccessful years trying to resolve the debt.
The encroaching neighborhood and mounting costs of upkeep the now-dilapidated building pushed the church to sell the property and move westward. By this point, Northern Liberties had expanded substantially. Former houses on 2nd Street had been converted to stores and workshops. The streetlife overwhelmed the congregation, but the increase in economic activity drove up land value. First Presbyterian sold the 1805 and 1818 buildings and built three new church buildings in Northern Liberties to accommodate the membership, which had grown to over 1,000.
Starting in 1833, the church properties–the old church building and the three-story lecture hall addition–then passed through the hands of several successive owners who opened different types businesses and used them as private residences.
A Theatrical Second Act
In 1836, veteran actor F.C. Wemyss, who had acquired the Walnut Street Theatre two years earlier, sunk all his funds into a $20,000 conversion of the old church building into the Pennsylvania Theatre (sometimes called the Coates Street Theater). He partnered with experienced theater manager Cornelius Logan. The old Northern Liberties church became the fourth major theatre in Philadelphia and operated in direct competition with the Arch Street and Chestnut Street theaters, while co-existing, business-wise, with the Walnut Street Theater. The Pennsylvania Theatre opened on November 7th, 1836 with a production of James Kenney’s Raising the Wind.
It was widely known that Wemyss viewed the risky enterprise as mostly an experiment to see if the region could support a fourth major theatre. The experiment failed. What was colloquially known as the Old Coates Street Theatre closed after only a few years in operation. Wemyss sold the building in April, 1841 for a paltry $62, still owing a $5,000 mortgage on the property. He offered a humorous explanation for failure. “Too much prayer had been made in it to allow its successful conversion into a playhouse,” he said.
The building became an auction house in 1852 and later a dance academy. It returned to theatrical use in 1858 and was taken over by the Volkstheater, which hosted a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the 1860s as Herman Hall, the building served as the permanent theater of a minstrel troupe known as the Coates Street Varieties. In the 1880s, it was part of a network of several theaters in the city called “Central Hall.” Finally, in 1892, a German singing society took it over. The interior was renovated and the building reopened as Arbiter Saengerbund Hall. During this period, the three-story lecture hall at 209-11 Fairmount was a grain and feed warehouse.
Pride and Polska
In July 5th, 1907, the old theater and lecture hall reopened as the Associated Polish Home of Philadelphia. The organization formed in 1900 with a goal of unifying all the different Polish societies toward a singular mission and purpose, while also promoting the needs of the greater Polish-American community. Over the next few decades, the building housed Uniwersytet Ludowy (Polish People’s University), Adam Mickiewicz Polish Language School, Paderewski Cultural Society, Polish Dramatic Theater, Polish National Alliance, Polish Veterans of World War II, and the American Relief for Poland Immigration Committee. After World War II, The American Relief for Poland Immigration Committee used the building as its headquarters, providing aid to war-torn Poland and to displaced Poles around the globe.
The Associated Polish Home remained in the old church/theater for 51 years. In 1958 the organization moved to Academy Road in the Northeast. The building was then used for industrial and warehouse space with periods of vacancy. Smythe Tapes Inc., a package labeling manufacturer, took over the property in the 1970s and Marlin Service Corporation of Pennsylvania, a financial consulting firm, used the building for office space in the early 1980s.
In 1983, the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development took ownership of the property. Current owners Robert and Marian Betty purchased the building in 1995 for $107,000 and have leased it out as commercial spaces since. Pieces of the Puzzle Learning Center Inc. has been the primary occupant of the building since 2012.