Last spring the Philadelphia Historical Commission overturned by a single vote a previous decision that had placed Christian Street Baptist Church on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Oscar Beisert, who had researched, written, and valiantly fought for the church’s nomination, was wordlessly handed a picture. The faded image, torn from an old calendar page, showed a church that bore an uncanny resemblance to the South Philly sanctuary. “St. Johann in the Dolomites, Trentino-Alto Adige” read the handwritten legend in the top corner.
The two churches were hardly identical. The calendar image showed the Italian church’s campanile capped with an onion dome. Its pink trim was painted, not brick. St. Johann sat alone in a green meadow, backing onto an autumnal landscape of golden larches, birches, and evergreens, crowned by soaring mountain spires–a far cry from the dense brick rows of Christian Street. Still, “the visual affinity is striking,” said Beisert. Although he understood the gift of the image as a “gesture of lamentation,” the affinity between two churches, one clearly loved and celebrated, the other about to be unceremoniously discarded, only intensified Beisert’s pain of losing the nomination.
I happen to be living in Italy this fall, just an hour and a half journey from St. Johann in the Dolomites, or Chiesetta di San Giovanni in Ranui, as it’s known in Italian. Like many Philadelphians, I am still grieving the summer’s senseless demolition of Christian Street Baptist Church. So a few weeks ago I made a mountain pilgrimage in early October to see its doppelganger. I wanted both to pay homage to our lost church back home in Pennsylvania and to investigate what connections the Protestant Episcopal Mission might have to this chiesetta tucked away in the far north of Italy.
My husband and I drove the winding roads up to the Val de Funes, a verdant valley tucked into the magnificently craggy Dolomites, in a region the mostly German-speaking residents still call “Sud Tyrol” as opposed to the Italian “Alto Adige.” That “Sud” will be about as close to South Philly as things get up here. As we drove up, we passed a local band, men dressed in lederhosen, feathered caps, and red and white checked shirts. The women were clad in stiff dirndls and petticoats, instruments poised to serenade a pair of newlyweds. The sounds of a gurgling stream and the gentle clang of cowbells accompanied us as we approach the church by way of a narrow path, roped off to prevent tourists from trampling the working pasture.
Surrounded by a broad carpet of green and dwarfed by a breathtaking panorama of spired Dolomites, the chiesetta is touching in its delicacy. Yet, the diminutive, one-room church, built in 1744 as the chapel for a medieval manor house and hunting lodge, holds its own through elegant geometry and satisfying proportions. The white facade and sides are offset by rose-colored trompe l’oeil trim that mimic the pink granite favored by more significant parish and village churches throughout the Dolomites region. The journeyman painter hired for this task pulled out all the stops, conjuring his paintbrush into a chisel, fashioning serpentine-fluted columns and lavish capitals, surrounding the tiny windows with elaborate floral garlands of faux terracotta–achieving in paint what only the most experienced sculptors would be able to accomplish, on a grander scale in budget, in stone.
The winning combination of charming architecture and awe-inspiring setting makes San Giovanni in Ranui one of the most photographed churches in the world. About an hour before sunset, pros and amateurs alike crowd an elevated platform built into the pasture’s fence to accommodate them, propping their camera lenses on built-in flat shelves and aiming like hunters in a blind as they await the magic hour. The sun drops low and turns the majestic mountain range (called Geisler in German, Odle in Italian) pink, the lush pasture emerald, and the little church bright white. The photographer of that decades-old calendar image must have also once stood on this spot. But I’m the only one among these camera-toting tourists jockeying for the ideal perspective who is thinking about another church some 6,000 miles away.
What’s the connection between the two churches? Unlike Philadelphia, a pay-to-play OWHC “World Heritage City,” the Dolomites are a real UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized and, ahem, protected as valuable assets in the human patrimony. The churches are also both, architecturally speaking, “gems,” a term that encompasses such famous small-scale masterpieces as Bramante’s Tempietto in Rome or Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel in Florence. Both Christian Street Baptist Church and San Giovanni in Ranui display exquisite proportions that give them a striking presence despite their unpresuming size. In fact, their size is part of their charm and power.
Is “the striking visual affinity” Beisert and his anonymous donor noted more than a coincidence? Determining whether Frank Watson, architect of Philadelphia’s Protestant Episcopal Church of the Emanuel (Christian Street Baptist’s original name) was inspired directly by the little church in the Dolomites would take some dedicated historical detective work. The image could well have been iconic and widely circulated in Watson’s time. For Beisert, it’s the archetypal forms and details Watson chose that matter. The classic Renaissance proportions and geometry, the rosy quoining (in brick, not paint or granite) would have been comfortingly familiar to the Italian immigrants who formed the first congregation of the Protestant Episcopal Mission of the Emmanuel (or L’Emmanuelo), a taste of home in a strange new world.
But I’m intrigued by the possibility that Watson was attempting something even more nuanced and sophisticated. When L’Emmanuelo was built in 1891, the Sud Tyrol was part of Austria, not Italy. And L’Emmanuelo’s first pastor, Michele Zara, came from Lecce, in the far tip of Italy’s heel. The culture and architecture of the Dolomites would have been as alien to him and his congregation of mostly illiterate paesani from Southern Italy as the dense, noisy streets of Bella Vista, if not more.
L’Emmanuelo was not a conventional immigrant church. Its origins and history, as chronicled in the nomination Beisert submitted to the PHC, reveal a fascinating, very American tale of displacement, adaption, and reinvention. With Philadelphia’s Catholic archdiocese overwhelmed by the influx of Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, the Protestant Episcopal Church stepped in to fill a void. The Mission on Christian Street was established to provide social services, English language lessons, meals, schooling, and community activities, as well as a place for the new flock to worship in their native language. While the ethnic Catholic churches, like Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi built in 1851, reinforced ties to the Old Country, the Episcopal mission offered a bridge to assimilation. Zara, the first pastor, embraced the mission with zeal. A defrocked Catholic priest who had fled his parish in Lecce because of accusations of thievery became the driving force behind the construction of a church and community center where his countrymen and women could retain the most meaningful aspects of their culture, while profiting from the opportunities available in a dynamic, diverse young city.
As architect for the new mission complex, the Episcopalians hired Frank Watson, one of the most prominent church architects of the era. Nimble and eclectic like most designers of his time, he was well versed in a panoply of historic forms and made appropriate choices for his client congregations. St. Mark’s in Frankford, for example, is a monumental expression of perpendicular Gothic, a style well suited for a sanctuary once slated to be Philadelphia’s Episcopal Cathedral.
The Protestant Episcopal Mission in South Philadelphia would have presented a creative challenge. A church providing both sanctuary and social services for Italian converts from Catholicism demanded a new idiom. Watson went for something distinctive and untried, rather than falling back on the commonplace Gothic Revival, the default for Episcopal churches, or turning to the more authentically Italian Palladianism of Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi or Baroque idiom of the Catholic cathedral on the Parkway. The mountain churches of Northern Italy and Southern Austria could well have been sources, perhaps even the iconic little chapel in the Val de Funes. The Renaissance proportions, the geometric play of triangles, squares, and circles, that sturdy campanile, and delicate details like the lovely garland of sculpted terracotta around the door frame spoke, with a slight Italian inflection, of Old World roots. Instead of edging the white stucco building in pink granite or painted trompe l’oeil, Watson opted for the Philadelphia red brick. (The church was stuccoed white originally, lost its stucco in the 1930s, and exposed its brick façade, like its Catholic neighbor on Christian Street, Saint Paul’s, then was re-stuccoed when the Baptist congregation took over.)
When I tell European friends about my visit to the Val de Funes to pay homage to a now demolished Philadelphia church they are aghast. “How could that happen?” they ask. “Aren’t there laws that protect buildings like that?” While bureaucratic red tape, corruption, and nepotism strangle progress in many Italian cities, the principles of adaptive reuse seem embedded in the cultural DNA. Buildings endure even as society’s needs and demands change. In Trento, the city where I’m currently living, a 500-year-old palazzo that once housed nobility might have subsequently become a tailor or butcher shop, transformed today into a cell phone or lingerie store, and changing inevitably to serve some future function we haven’t yet imagined. How do I explain Philadelphia’s 10-year tax abatement to people accustomed to seeing their city’s historic architecture as a living, public asset? Explaining the capricious decisions (or indecision) of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the hoops that intrepid nominators like Beisert have to jump through, and the power that developers have in our city right now is too complicated, especially in a foreign language. So I give them the short answer–NO.
As has already been movingly recorded by Mickey Herr on the Hidden City Daily, the tragic loss of Christian Street Baptist Church was a blow to those of us in Philadelphia who value historic churches, not just for their architectural beauty–and this church was a beauty–but as living testaments to Philadelphia’s history of religious tolerance and diversity. As a cultural touchstone, L’Emmanuele was both typical and unusual. The mission offered a comforting, welcoming home to newly arrived immigrants and provided fertile ground for social transformation and reinvention. The architecture, which transplanted a humble mountain church into an urban environment, eloquently expressed these dual roles.
This is the legacy we lost when Christian Street Baptist Church was demolished. My visit to its charming, much treasured counterpart in the Dolomites only deepened my grief. The little chiesetta showed me how unique the South Philadelphia mission was in both form and function. Ori Feibush, the real estate developer who bought and then demolished the church, has complained about critics’ outrage on social media. He doesn’t understand why preservationists lament the loss of a building he considers less significant than a monumental structure like Christ Memorial in West Philadelphia. We lament that loss too, of course. But Feibush seems to be arguing on the principle that size, and profit, is all that matters. He is wrong and it is these little gems we need to fight for in Philadelphia. Christian Street Baptist Church was one-of-a-kind. The likes of it will never be seen again. Yet, if you visit San Giovanni in Ranui you just might whimsically imagine, as I did, that in this spectacular valley surrounded by soaring mountains our beloved South Philadelphia church has gone to heaven.