Last February the quiet streets of Old City were rocked by a five-alarm fire that claimed a 19th century cast iron building as its casualty and taking down the business operating in the surrounding structures for good measure. Earlier this year 239 Chestnut Street was in the news again, this time with the development that the blaze was the result of an arsonist. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia smartly requested a 3D laser scan of the cast iron facade before what was left of 239 Chestnut Street was demolished last spring. What they plan to do with that scan remains undecided.
Before the fire, 239 Chestnut Street was the home to some 160 residents. All were displaced as a result of the fire, as were a handful of retail spaces and a number of bars and restaurants on the block like the Little Lion Cafe, which has been closed to the public since the fire. 239 Chestnut Street sits across the street from the Museum of the American Revolution and is just a short walk from Independence Hall and the Betsy Ross House. The fire occurred just as the Museum of the American Revolution was set to open its doors to the public and the surrounding businesses missed a lucrative opportunity to attract the attention of the thousands of tourists that pour through the museum each month. The cast iron facade of 239 Chestnut Street was an iconic part of the Old City backdrop, featuring prominently in Instagram photos captured by residents and visitors.
In all of the cacophony surrounding the upset and scandal of the 239 Chestnut Street fire, Philadelphia sustains the loss of yet another building with an important and undervalued architectural history. Designed by Philadelphia-based architect Stephen Decatur Button in 1861, it is one of many of the architect’s Italinate designs that would come to define his style, which is reflected in the many buildings that he was commissioned for in the mid-19th century. Between 1852 and 1859, he designed many commercial buildings along Walnut and Chestnut Streets, where his eye for graceful ornamentation dressed Philadelphia facades throughout the first half of the 20th century.
What is Lost and What Remains
Button’s work in the Italianate style can still be seen repeated in many of the storefronts throughout Old City, but much has been lost over the last century. His vision is similarly found dotted throughout Cape May, New Jersey where he combined his Italianate leanings with Gothic influences to create colorful and decorative Victorian homes that, today, attracts visitors to the picturesque shore town in droves. Button also designed many commercial and residential buildings across the Delaware River in Camden where he once lived.
Button began his career with a carpenter apprenticeship in Connecticut where he was born and raised. After finishing his training he moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, where he worked on designing residential buildings. It wasn’t until he moved to the south that he began to develop his signature style. He first received notoriety after winning the competition for the design of the Alabama State House.
After his stint in the south, Button moved north to Philadelphia, where he partnered with his brother-in-law, Joseph C. Hoxie. Button and Hoxie worked together for four years before their partnership was disbanded and Button set out to work on his own. During this time, he moved towards working mainly in the “flexible” Italianate style that has come to define his work and that we still recognize today lining the streets of Old City.
Button had an impressive career during his years in Philadelphia, designing residential homes, commercial and municipal buildings, and churches. He was an active member of the architecture community and helped establish the first chapter of American Institute of Architects in Philadelphia. He participated in numerous design competitions, including the competition for the Academy of Music in which he won second place. The city is fortunate to retain a handful of his designs, including the Gaul-Forrest House on North Broad Street, which was the original home of Moore College of Art & Design and is now Freedom Theater. Other prominent Button designs are First Baptist Church across from City Hall and Arch Street Presbyterian Church situated next to both Comcast towers. But many of the structures have been lost over time, including the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot at 18th and Market Streets, and Tabernacle Methodist at 5th and Thompson Streets, and the First Reformed Dutch Church at 7th and Spring Garden Streets. These casualties are just a handful of the buildings that the city has lost due to a variety of urban renewal projects, including the construction of I-676 in 1964, which now runs over the city blocks where a handful of the architect’s buildings once stood.
Button’s influence on the built fabric in Old City remains intact today. The ornate facades that typify Button’s design, like the Leland Building at 37-39 S. 3rd Street, are distinguished examples of his work and contribute to the neighborhood’s rich historic character. The visibility of his buildings lead most to believe that they are protected, but the devastating results of the fire show that, even with historic designations and conservation, aging structures are still susceptible to destruction. What is perhaps one of the most important and the most endangered of Button’s architectural legacy is tucked away in Southwest Philadelphia. The gatehouse of Mount Moriah Cemetery, a testament to the importance of the parkland cemetery on the 19th century, makes the case for the citywide preservation of Button’s remaining work.
Resurrecting Mount Moriah Cemetery
At the western outskirts of Philadelphia where the trolley line ends at 63rd Street and Kingsessing Avenue sits Mount Moriah Cemetery and its 200 acres of rolling hills of crumbling headstones and shifting burial plots. Memorial monuments are consumed with vines and bramble, the cement paths are cracked throughout. At the southwest corner a towering brownstone gatehouse appears to erupt from the hillside, dwarfing the gravestones and statues around it. The structure, for all its might, is being held together with scaffolding, wooden beams, and ropes tied around the cap. The reinforcements are in place to prevent its collapse. “We’re biding time,” explained Kenneth Smith, board president of Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery. Until the group can secure funding to restore and preserve the brittle, brownstone arch, it remains at the mercy of the elements and further deterioration.
The Romanesque gatehouse of Mount Moriah was the first thing to greet mourners in the 1800s arriving on the funeral trolleys that dropped them off at the 63rd street stop. Much like Laurel Hill Cemetery in East Falls, Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia, and Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, Mount Moriah was a verdant, rural burial ground where where the bereaved would celebrate deceased loved ones far from the calamities of the city. “Families would come out here on their days off and picnic,” Smith said. The cemetery was incorporated in 1855, and Philadelphia gradually expanded around it. Any yet, the noise of city life is still largely out of earshot within the serene, overgrown grounds. The sky seems to go on for miles and the hills stretch even further. One could spend an entire day exploring the winding paths of the cemetery.
Mount Moriah was a functioning cemetery from 1855 to 2011. It is filled with war veterans, notable Philadelphians, and everyday people. Churches from the city’s core often reinterred bodies at Mount Moriah from their burial grounds when development began picking up after the Civil War. As Philadelphia became densely settled, more congregations opted to purchase small lots in Mount Moriah instead of having a graveyard next to their church.
Mount Moriah was a thriving business venture throughout most of the 20th century. However, time and mismanagement eventually took its toll on the property. The cemetery operated under the jurisdiction of the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association until 2011. When the City learned of the group’s plans to cease operations, it took over the reins. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Corporation partnered with neighboring Yeadon to form the Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation (MMCPC). The non-profit group was granted receivership of the cemetery and now oversees the future of the dilapidated grounds.
In 2014, a judge dissolved the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association, handing responsibility for the cemetery over to MMCPC. At this point, a group of volunteers, Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, led by Paulette Rhone who passed away in March, had taken on the arduous task of cleaning up the abandoned cemetery. Although the group has been working diligently for years to clean up the grounds, there are still vandalized tombstones, cracked pavement, and plenty of overgrowth crowding burial plots.
Today, a visit to the grounds on the weekend will greet one with the din of construction machinery laying gravel or clearing brush from the path. Decked out in work gear, a handful of volunteers from Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery meet on Saturdays at 8AM to clean headstones and remove thick brush from the nature-reclaimed grounds. About 50 percent of the cemetery is currently accessible to visitors, but there is still plenty of work to be done.
The collapse of headstones and monuments is common due to the decay and rot in older, wooden caskets that create sinkholes within a gravesite. Today, the cemetery is littered with such holes that dot the grounds. The earth has swallowed up a number of grave markers whole. Structural work is also high on the long to-do list for MMCPC. In addition to the gatehouse, an administration building sits along the southern boundary of the cemetery that is full of office files and important burial identification papers. “We need to fix the roof on that,” said Smith, in order to protect and eventually use the cemetery’s records. The nonprofit is focusing on raising funds to fix the office building’s roof first, which is a considerably cheaper project than the formidable task of repairing Button’s gatehouse. Preservation of the arch will be a delicate, arduous processes and it comes with its own unique set of problems. For one, brownstone is a very unique material and there just isn’t as much being produced as there once was. Obtaining it would be difficult and pricy. Replicating brownstone using other materials could also be a big undertaking, as imitating the consistency and the color is a costly endeavor.
There are also structural issues with the gatehouse, such as damage that resulted from a fire that the building sustained in the 1970s. Before, there were two buildings: one that functioned as an office and another that was a home where the groundskeeper and his family resided. These buildings were irreversibly damaged in the fire, and while there are still remnants, their decay has led to the deterioration of the rest of the structure. Much like Button’s lost building at 239 Chestnut, scans were taken of the gatehouse to help with future restoration. While the basic steps have been taken, the question still remains of how MMCPC will pay not only for the restoration of the gatehouse, but also the continual maintenance of the administration building and the cemetery grounds.
The nonprofit is exploring a number of different fundraising options, but questions of financial sustainability remain open ended. MMCPC developed a strategic plan that was published in November 2018. The research outlines the need for increasing public knowledge and awareness of the cemetery. The plan aims to reimagine the cemetery into a protected, open space, much like neighboring Bartram’s Garden or John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Eastwick. Additionally, MMCPC plans to secure funding through grants and philanthropic support to help obtain the long-term funding that would be needed to maintain the space.
There is still plenty to be done to stabilize and secure Mount Moriah for future generations to visit and learn from. With the unexpected loss of 239 Chestnut Street, preservation efforts to save the Button-designed gatehouse appear more urgent than ever. However, against all odds, the work currently being done to support the cemetery gives it a good chance of becoming an historic Philadelphia destination.