Church Demolition By The Numbers: More Questions Than Answers

December 9, 2016 | by Rachel Hildebrandt


St. Bonaventure in Fairhill mid-demolition in 2013. The Edwin Forrest Durang-designed church was 120 years old. | Photo: Bradley Maule

As a senior program manager for Partners for Sacred Places (and a regular contributor to Hidden City Daily), I have been tracking and analyzing the pattern of religious building demolition for the past six years in an effort to better understand how these demolitions are happening.

Those in Philadelphia’s preservation and planning communities have observed that as development pressure has increased, demolition of purpose-built religious properties has escalated. This trend does not discriminate and has resulted in the loss of buildings ranging from modest to monumental—each significant in some measure.

Partners for Sacred Places’ data validates the commonly held assumption that development pressure directly affects the fate of a closed church or synagogue. In fact, the vast majority (79 percent) of recent demolitions in the city are associated with development pressure, which is occurring at an unprecedented rate in neighborhoods—traditionally working class and immigrant neighborhoods—throughout Philadelphia.

Since 2009, 28 religious buildings have been demolished including:

From this list, I was able to determine that:

  • Of the 28 demolitions, 22 (79 percent) were associated with development pressure
  • Of the 22 demolitions associated with development pressure, 20 (91 percent) made way for new housing
  • Of the 22, there are zero instances in which the congregation that erected the building (the original occupant) sold to a developer who planned to demolish
  • Of the 22, there are 15 instances in which a “hermit crab” congregation sold to a developer who planned to demolish (a “hermit crab” congregation, according to those who work in church property reuse, resides in an existing religious building and adapts it according to the particularities of it own tradition
  • Of the 22, there are three instances in which a congregation resulting from a merger sold to a developer who planned to demolish
  • Of the 22, there are three instances in which congregation’s judicatory—which acquired property upon the a congregation’s disbandment—sold to a developer who planned to demolish (a judicatory is denominational body that oversees a group of congregations).

Mt. Olive AME Church at 19th and Fitzwater Streets was razed in 2012 to make way for five new single-family homes. | Photo: Lauren Drapala

It is striking that there are no examples of a congregation that built and first occupied a property that intentionally sold it to a developer who planned to demolish. But once the religious building is already passed down, for whatever reason, the new owner is much more likely to sell to a developer who plans to demolish. At this crucial moment in the life of a religious building—the moment at which it is sold by a congregation or judicatory to a new user—its future is essentially determined. In these 22 instances in which a religious building has been transitioned out of religious use and into the hands of a developer who would go on to demolish the property, it is last owned by either a “hermit crab” congregation, a congregation that is the result of the merger, or a judicatory.

I suspect that a congregation’s connection to its building and history plays a role in the decision-making process once its leadership, either at the level of the congregation or judicatory, depending on the faith tradition, has decided to downsize, merge, or close. If this it true, it means that religious buildings that no longer house their original occupant may be in greater danger of being demolished as opposed to adapted.

Of the 28 demolitions, only six properties (21 percent) were demolished for other reasons. There are three instances of demolition in response to critical conditions issues—including one collapse: that of Central United Methodist Church in Frankford. And there are three instances of demolition prompted by organizational downsizing. In these cases, the owners of the properties deemed them either redundant or too-costly-to-maintain.

The former Union Baptist Church at 12th and Bainbridge where world renowned contralto Marian Anderson learned to sing. The church was demolished for new residential construction in 2015. | Photo: Michael Bixler

These numbers have left those of us at Partners for Sacred Places with more questions than answers. How can we aid congregations that can no longer afford to remain in their buildings—particularly those that need to transition their buildings? What can City officials do to make adaptive reuse as attractive, if not more attractive, than demolition to developers and investors? Were any of these properties eligible to be listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which would have protected against demolition? What can we learn from the cases in which demolition appeared to be imminent, but was narrowly averted like St. Laurentius in Fishtown? What can we learn from the cases in which reuse (whether it represented the highest and best use) was favored by both the congregation and developer?

Philadelphia’s residential building boom continues to threaten the historic fabric of the city with no indication of slowing down. Questions like these must be addressed and acted upon before the homogeneity of unchecked new construction strips our neighborhoods of their architectural and cultural character permanently.


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About the Author

Rachel Hildebrandt Rachel Hildebrandt, a graduate of PennDesign, is a native Philadelphian who is passionate about the changing city she inhabits. Before beginning her graduate studies in historic preservation with a focus on policy, Rachel obtained a B.A. in Psychology from Chestnut Hill College and co-authored two books, The Philadelphia Area Architecture of Horace Trumbauer (2009) and Oak Lane, Olney, and Logan (2011). She currently works as a senior program manager at Partners for Sacred Places.


  1. kclo3 says:

    The only way to stop development pressure from demolishing over rehabilitating is to stop incentivizing demolishing and start incentivizing rehabilitating. This means that the 10-year tax abatement, currently applied to all development projects of all sizes regardless of impact, should be eliminated for a developer that intends to demolish a historic structure and only applied if renovations are intended, the awarding of which would be approved under Historical Commission review. This also requires the prerequisite that the Historical Commission needs to designate a far greater number of buildings than they are currently willing to accept for excessive stringency, but we need to recognize that designation alone does not translate into derelict buildings protected against deterioration, or even substantial protection against developers and their hardship claims.

    1. Astralmilkman says:

      Brilliant idea !!! Never thought of restricting the tax abatement. That combined somehow with my bucket idea I believe would change the whole mind set of how developers look at these structures. It’s sad but true that we continually tear down that which makes our city great. However it would never be allowed to come from the city end, it would somehow have to come as a prerequisite from Harrisburg for funding . If the state let it be known that this avenue is the only way money flows…………. the city council would fall in line.
      One thing on Santas list I guess ?

  2. Astralmilkman says:

    Great article. I love old churches and schools and such , so much character and beauty ! The structures religious past isn’t what interest me so much as its presence in the street scape. So whether it’s Jewish , Islam ,Christian or Catholic. They are beautiful places on their own . I’ve thought about how you can save these places for many years and have what I think is a practical if somewhat of a long shot idea ! I’m not an urban planner so be kind .
    It’s a bucket plan .
    1You take all the abandoned buildings and mty lots the city owns and put them into one bucket.
    2 you take all the archectualy significant buildings like religious spaces and schools and any place
    on the chopping block that has an interesting presence on the street. Everything on the historical
    List as it were. Put those in another bucket
    3 you take all the tax breaks , variences etc , whatever developers are given in order to promote
    construction ( both city and state !) and place them in another bucket.
    4 You take all the organizations that are tax exempt ( colleges , religious institutions etc etc ) put
    them into another bucket along with any large company’s that do business with the city !
    5 you take NGOs and nonprofits looking to build affordable housing and groups working to help
    the homeless and place them in a bucket !
    6 you place a moratorium on all future demolition permits for the aforementioned structures .
    The plan would go something like this.
    Your a developer with a building on the list , you can’t demo it so it goes into bucket one or two.
    You either take a structure that you would reuse from those buckets or take mty lots that are say
    double the space from other parts of the city. The permits to develope these spaces would be time
    Limited so they would have to be developed, they could not be resold. NO SHELL GAMES !
    If your a tax exempt company and want to build another structure with exempt status or expand
    what is exempt then you’d need to say purchase an mty I bucket one and DONATE it to a nonprofit
    that will use it for low income or homeless housing. AGAIN TIME LIMITED !
    NOT THE PHA , They’re buildings are simply ugly and poorly designed and are scars on the street.
    Of your a company that wants to do business with the city than just like the money that’s put aside for
    public art , a mty lot or unused structure would be purchased and DONATED to a non profit that builds
    low income. Again TIME LIMITED.
    The idea is to have Harrisburg and Philadelphia agree to make the bucket plan the only game in town.
    Developers would be forced to reuse or save significant structures and or build on mty lots which would
    spread the money across the city especially to places of blight. If your someone with assets or interest in
    one of these buckets your forced to work with assets in one of the other buckets. Tax exempt groups
    got nowhere to go so they would start using up these assets. Developers would be drawn to these
    places for the exemptions or so they could still do business with they city or simply because they could
    double or triple the space they have by using one of those mty lots in bucket one. We need to forget about
    Getting top dollar for these lots and just get them out of the bucket and redeveloped. RIGHT THEM OFF !!
    The sooner they’re back into use the better. And by putting them into the hands of the public and not PHA.
    We have a much better chance of getting decent looking structures instead of the modern tenements we get now. Low income housing doesn’t have to be ugly.
    Again…. I’m not an urban planner but I think you can understand the line off thought I’m proposing . If
    someone can tweak this idea and make it better … GREAT GO FOR IT !! Let’s not loose what makes this
    city great ,
    Thanks for listening.

  3. Unpersuaded by this says:

    Honestly, I’d rather have vibrant new development than a vacant church (or any other type of vacant structure) that has fallen into disrepair. If the original or subsequent congregations couldn’t or wouldn’t sustain the structure then it’s time to move on. I live near the 12th & Bainbridge church. It was long vacant – a wreck and an eyesore. It was torn down recently and new condos are nearly done on that sight, increasing property values in the area. I’m very much okay with that. Your results may vary.

    1. Astralmilkman says:

      I’m not against new development either , However when architects are forced to improvise because of restrictions ( like working an older structure somehow into the plan ) the results are usually stunning !
      Ask Bjarke Ingels ! Even trump says in the Art of the Deal that some of the demands of the city he originally hated turned out to be great ideas that made the end result some much better. The truth is most developers would churn out box after box if they could get away with it. Let’s use what makes our streets scape so
      so much more interesting than suburbia and not plow it under !

    2. Davis says:

      I don’t think anyone wants to see vacant buildings. Let them be re-purposed and thereby retain the and in fact enhance the character of the neighborhoods. It doesn’t work in every case, but far too many developers want to dash in and out for a quick buck.

  4. Jim Clark says:

    There are some great videos and a picture collage (which I posted) that shows St. Bonaventure. The videos were take by some young folks from New Jersey just before the church was torn down. I did the collage. I attended that church (and school) for 8 years. In its day it was so beautiful and well maintained, now it is a vacant lot with a million dollar lien against it. (Youtube: “Cathedral of Decay”

    1. Jacqueline Wiggins says:

      Fascinating article. My parish church, though , I didn’t see on the list-St. Elizabeth Church at 23rd and Berks Street in North Central Philadelphia. It was demolished in 1995 . The parish closed in 1993. We were sent to St. Columba parish at 24th and Lehigh Avenue. St. Columba is now called St. Martin de Porres. Author and former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Ralph Cipriano lost his job at the Inquirer about these closings.

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