Documenting the demolition of Christian Street Baptist Church began with the notion of “one last day.” It’s a concept developed by Philadelphia artist Maria Möller whereby an item that has been discarded is given one last day of happy use before it is returned to the scrap heap. In an ideal world the surrounding community could have held one final service in the sanctuary of the old Italian church and filled the place with music, but we were well past that. On June 17, the barricades were already up, and demolition was imminent. So, I did the next best thing. I walked over to the church, just as a beautiful Philly sun began to set, and started taking photos. I imagined what life was like at the church 100 years ago. 50 years ago. Two decades ago, even. And then I posted an “elegy in images” on my Instagram account. One last day, one last sunset, one last moment of quiet before it would all be gone. Forever.
If you, like me, enjoy taking neighborhood walks, you will recognize my grief in passing by an empty lot, a partially demolished building, or the construction of new $1 million townhouses. At present moment, within four blocks of my Bella Vista home, I can walk by six recently cleared lots. It feels like an attack on the neighborhood. It feels personal. I have lived in my home for the last 12 years, and I don’t remember anything quite like this. I live in a simple row house. I never expect a parking space. My street is a mix of old timers and new arrivals. Within blocks of my home I can eat almost any type of international food cooked by immigrants of all stripes. You hear the niceties in many languages: “Gracias!,” “Nĭ hăo, Sąwsdi!,” “How youse doin’?” “Mangia!” The basketball courts and soccer fields are full of future athletic stars. The wee ones shriek with excitement in our many playgrounds. These are the sights and sounds of a vibrant urban community.
Bella Vista, named for the Italian immigrants who made their home here at the turn of the 20th century, is still very much a family neighborhood. We look out for each other. It seems that the last place a 100-year-old church would be demolished, especially one that was an integral part of Philadelphia’s Italian immigration story. Originally named as the Protestant Episcopal Italian Mission and Church of L’Emmanuello, the building represents the city’s earliest commitment to aiding immigrant populations. According to architectural historian Oscar Beisert, the building was designed to be familiar to the population it served. The original parish house was built in 1890, the main chapel in 1891, and an addition to the parish house came in 1904.
Despite the best efforts of Beisert and the Keeping Society of Philadelphia, the group which officially nominated the site for historic designation to the Philadelphia Historical Commission in June 2017, and several neighborhood protests, developer Ori Feibush, owner of OCF Realty and the owner of the church since June of 2017, destroyed the church with plans to build luxury townhouses with private parking. The details of a lost historic designation and the politics surrounding the church have been covered by multiple reporters including Hidden City Daily contributor Starr Herr-Cardillo.
What started out as “one last day” became a summer obsession. I visited the site almost daily. And I kept taking photos. I never pulled out a fancy camera, I just utilized my cell phone. It wasn’t meant to be art. I just felt I needed to watch. To witness. To record.
Noticeable demolition started just after the 4th of July when the bell tower began to come down. I assumed it would only be a matter of days until the lot would be empty. I never imagined the process would take nearly three months. I remember the demolition team telling me “Yeah, we think we’ll be done by Friday” back in mid-July. But the building would not oblige. First the chapel, followed by the parish house behind. It felt symbolic as if they refused to go. At first, I focused solely on the front of the lot, the Christian Street side, and watched the chapel building.
The first few days I couldn’t see much as the initial work seemed to be internal and I heard rumors of asbestos remediation. The situation didn’t start to feel real until the end of the second week. Starting on July 13 every new visit felt like a punch in the gut. I held my breath as I approached. During the week of July 18 it looked like a bomb had been dropped on the old church. As I set eyes on the punctured front facade I must have had a shocked look on my face. It was one of those brutally hot summer days. I was approached by one of the demo guys, who were by now familiar with my visits. “Are you okay miss? Do you need some water?,” he asked. “I’m just really sad,” I said. “Yes, we are too,” he answered back. Apparently not even the demo crew wanted to take the building down. No, it was just one man, Ori Feibush, who insisted that it must go.
Once the front wall was removed, I started to focus on the back wall of the sanctuary where a blue demilune shape appeared. I assume some sort of stained-glass window once hung in the opening. But it was the blue wall that kept my attention in the days to follow. As the debris was slowly removed I realized there was a mirror still clinging to the wall beneath the opening. It reflected back something new every day. And then I noticed the staircase just behind the opening. A magical staircase. Where had it led? And then one day my beautiful blue demilune was overshadowed by a bright pink dumpster. And then it was gone.
As demolition continued I noticed new vistas revealed. A view from one place into another. Perhaps they never existed until now. They were fascinating.
It wasn’t until mid-August that I realized that I was so focused on the front Chapel view from Christian Street that I hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on in the alley behind the church, where tiny Clifton Street takes a very tight turn onto Salter Street. I had read about Feibush’s proposal to turn these streets into access to private parking. It didn’t occur me until I walked down Clifton just how ridiculous this proposal was. I suddenly imagined the oversized Ranger Rover that would belong to some affluent, new townhouse owner, wanting to turn the corner onto Salter Street to access the proposed private rear entrance driveway. Preposterous. These old horse cart streets weren’t designed for cars, let alone SUV access.
Salter Street runs parallel with Christian Street, running east and west. I can’t imagine how the residents of Salter Street were feeling during this process. The largest building on their street, the parish house, was being ripped down and absolutely no neighbors were willing to talk. If I encountered anyone they barely acknowledged my greeting and quickly fled inside. The red bench and barren flower pots in front of the house connected directly to the parish house said everything that needed to be said. The bench remained empty. No one bothered to put new plants the pots, and what was left from the spring season was dead from lack of attention. These residents are in mourning. What will become of their quaint, quiet street?
It seems the less there was to photograph, the more photos I took. I noticed more details: the building materials as they were separated into piles, the prodigious number of bricks that were hauled away, the wall of a former basement. And those ever-present dumpsters, first pink, then orange.
Until finally we were left with an empty lot. The former site of the Protestant Episcopal Italian Mission and Church of L’Emmanuello. The former site of Christian Street Baptist Church. A former site of something quite impressive. Yet another place in Bella Vista where something beautiful used to be.
Those of us who remember the church and witnessed the demolition can point to this lot, or presumably new luxury townhouses, and say “this used to be here” and “this is what happened here.” That is, until we too are gone.
Recording the destruction of a neighborhood landmark. Photographs by Mickey Herr.