Eric Larsen knew he wanted something with character when he first began the hunt for new office space. The president of structural engineering firm Larsen & Landis was looking for a challenge, an unusual building with good bones and a simple, open floor plan ripe for remodeling. Larsen’s search first led him to an old hardware store at Master Street and Germantown Avenue and then to a PECO substation full of exposed steel at 19th and Oxford Streets. After environmental remediation issues put an end to the deal, Landis found himself at the doorstep of St. John Memorial Baptist Church, an austere 140-year-old, two-story building with a history of conjuring the dead sitting on prime real estate at Frankford and Thompson Streets destined for demolition. With the aid of Partners for Sacred Places, Larsen’s conversion of the late-19th century building into his firm’s new headquarters has removed a threatened Fishtown church from the grasps of hungry developers, while preserving the only house of worship built by Spiritualists in Philadelphia.
Larsen was initially attracted by the simplicity, size and location of the church but, in true structural engineer form, fell in love after taking a look above the ceiling and seeing the roof trusses, purlins and rafters, all which will remain exposed when renovations are complete. “I didn’t want a shiny new building, but a building with patina,” says Larsen. “The walls and roof were in fine shape. The building has and will continue to stand the test of time.”
The church was built by the congregation of the Second Association of Spiritualists in 1875, an atypical specimen for a sect that would typically rent public halls for performing séances and communication with the dead, hypnosis, magnetic healing, and other extra-sensory rituals. The popularity of the writings of Andrew Jackson Davis, known as “the Poughkeepsie Seer,” is largely attributed the rise of Spiritualism in the mid-19th century among middle and upper class Americans. In Philadelphia, the First Association of Spiritualists was originally called the Harmonial Benevolent Association and consisted of six groups that largely practiced in and around Northern Liberties. By 1884, Spiritualism’s popularity was at its height with over eight million followers in the United States and Europe. However only three associations were still active in the city–First Association at 8th and Spring Garden, Keystone Association at 9th and Spring Garden, and the church of Second Association at Thompson and Frankford, believed to be the only purpose-built Spiritualist church in Philadelphia and the last remaining building in the city associated with the religion.
Theophilius J. Ambrosia, president and “pastor” of the Second Association of Spiritualists in 1891, was a Civil War veteran and fought for the Union in 7th Regiment of the US Veteran Volunteer Infantry. He lived at 1223 N. 3rd Street in Northern Liberties after the war. The congregation would continue to meet at the church in one form or another until 1956 when members sold the building to Mars Hill Baptist, which would later sell the old Spiritualist church to St. John Memorial Baptist, the most recent owners, in 1980.
A surviving branch of the Second Association of Spiritualists still exists today. The congregation, Celestial Spiritualist Church, meets in a ramshackle Victorian row house at 421 Preston Street near Spruce Hill, with a plaque and sign adorning the façade.
Partners for Sacred Places first became involved with the church’s former owners, St. John Memorial Baptist, in 2013, after the congregation voted to sell the building twice, but never listed it on the real estate market. Through a program called Strategic Investment in Sacred Places, Partners, a national advocacy group for congregations in need and the preservation of historic, religious structures, has helped more than six congregations in the 19125 area code–an area besieged by church demolitions in the last decade–by maximizing resources to care for their buildings, implementing strategic plans for community use, and, in the case of Second Spiritualist, find a willing buyer interested in saving the church through creative, adaptive reuse. This is an undertaking Eric Larson has approached with infectious enthusiasm. “I’m down here almost every day,” he says. “I’m so excited that I can’t stay away.”
With help from architect Judy Robinson at Continuum Architecture and Design, a firm whose projects include Crane Arts and Eastern Lofts, the former American Railway Express Garage in Brewerytown, Larsen is seeing his vision through with minimalism and reverence for the structure’s original, naked form. On the inside, the roof sheathing will be exposed from below. A new, open second floor, which will take up two-thirds of the footprint of the building, will be framed with exposed steel beams and tongue-and-groove wood flooring, which will also serve as the first story ceiling. All of the church’s windows will be replaced to match the size of the original fenestration, and a large portion of the rear wall facing a sizable yard—big enough for a garden, outdoor meeting space, or future additions–will be replaced with glass. The basement will also be fitted out for rentable space with a rear window for natural light.
As for the exterior, the front façade is being stripped of its red paint and repointed, and an entrance canopy and new wood doors will be installed. Larsen says that either a mural or a green wall will be added to the church’s eastern wall facing Frankford Avenue.
He explains that while the church is scrappy-looking and not exactly a feast for the eyes, the building has a unique history that contributes to the narrative of the neighborhood. Structurally, it’s aged well. “I love old buildings, their character and history. This building is far from the cookie cutter designs that are infiltrating the neighborhood,” says Larsen. Indeed, it speaks to us from another time.