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:
- 19th Street Methodist Episcopal Church (last owned by an A.M.E. congregation)
- 34th Street Baptist Church (last New Hope Primitive Baptist Church)
- 40th Street Methodist Episcopal Church (last St. Joseph’s Baptist Church)
- Bethesda Methodist Episcopal Church (last Fitzwater Church of God)
- Central Methodist Episcopal Church
- Church of the Good Shepherd, Episcopal (last Grace of God Church of Deliverance)
- Church of the Messiah, Episcopal (last A.D. Club)
- Church of the Nativity, Episcopal (last Ruffin Nichols Memorial A.M.E. Church)
- Church of the Transfiguration, Catholic (last Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School)
- Fourth Reformed Unitarian Church (last Varick Memorial A.M.E. Church)
- Fourth United Presbyterian Church (last Mt. Olive A.M.E. Church)
- Gethsemane Baptist Church (last New Thankful Baptist Church)
- Greenwich Street Church, Presbyterian (last Khmer Palelai Buddhist Temple)
- Hancock Methodist Episcopal Church (merged into New Vision United Methodist Church)
- Highway Christian Church of Christ (last Bethel Gospel Tabernacle)
- Nazarene Baptist Church
- Nazareth Church (last Christian Faith Evangelistic Alliance)
- Pilgrim Congregational Church (merged into St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Kensington)
- Redeemer Lutheran Church
- S. W. Presbyterian Church (last Metropolitan A.M.E. Church)
- Second Baptist Church (last A.A. Fencing Company)
- St. Bonaventure Catholic Church (last New Life Evangelistic Church)
- St. Boniface Catholic Church
- St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
- St. Lucy’s Catholic Church (merged into St. Josaphat’s)
- Union Baptist Church (last New Hope Temple Baptist Church)
- Wakefield Presbyterian Church (last Goodwill Baptist Church)
- West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center (last We Are More Than Conquerors Deliverance Ministries)
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).
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.
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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