When developer Ken Weinstein, president of Philly Office Retail, first saw the former Church of Philadelphia at 147 W. Berkley Street it looked as if the Holy Spirit had departed along with the congregation.
The Church of God in Christ, an evangelical Christian organization with over one dozen locations in Philadelphia, owned the building until recently. The building is attached to a three-story, L-shaped, red brick structure that was constructed in 1903. The part of the building that faces Wayne Avenue is currently in use as apartments. The church also owns the one-story building next door, the former Arguto Oilless Bearing Company designed by Mellor and Meigs in 1910. Brick was the preferred material at the time due its function as a fire retardant.
Both properties had previously been part of the National Tool & Stamp Company. The last time the buildings changed hands was in 1983. The bearing factory has been vacant for the last 30 years. The church displayed no interest in restoring it. Now missing a roof and one wall, it is filled with rubble, graffiti, and wildlife. To anyone else, it would’ve been an eyesore. To Weinstein, it was the next step in his plan to repurpose abandoned factories in the Wayne Junction Historic District.
The owners of the church and adjacent building, however, opposed the historic designation, refused to sell, and wanted to demolish the properties instead. They claimed that the buildings could not be salvaged. The Department of Licenses and Inspections did not agree.
The owner held firm. So did Weinstein. “Usually, people will deal, talk, and figure out a solution. The church just decided, no, we’d like to own a vacant and deteriorated property. Which is just not acceptable,” said Weinstein.
The church’s fight was held up in court for three years under three different judges. Meanwhile, Weinstein applied for conservancy. “Ed Rendell created Act 135 which states if a property is left vacant and deteriorating, someone in the community can petition the court to appoint a conservator.” Weinstein did not get conservancy, he got something better. In 2019, the church finally agreed to sell. Weinstein plans to purchase both buildings in August 2020.
Weinstein did not actually view the interior of the properties until last fall. The church, which the owner claimed was still in use, turned out to be in a poor state. It had time-worn floorboards, whitewashed brick walls, hanging electric wires, exposed pipes, and a ceiling that no one would mistake for the Sistine Chapel. The bearing factory? It was more jungle than structure.
Weinstein envisions using the one-story building as a retail shop and the larger three-story, L-shaped building as apartments. “Our in-house architect Kyle Meiser will design the renovation, keeping the historic façade,” said Weinstein. “It will be a big boost for the neighborhood to restore it to its prior prosperity.”
For those who cannot equivocate prosperity with the intersection of Germantown and Nicetown, consider this. In 1881, the original Wayne Junction train station was designed by Frank Furness. It was a thriving business and residential area, as well as a major transportation hub for the Reading Railroad, providing service to New York City, DC, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. A firm believer in “build it and they will come,” Weinstein is making a $20 million investment in the area.
The irregularly shaped historic district, centered around the SEPTA train station, covers four city blocks and is approximately 12 acres. “Eight of the abandoned factories in the district are historically significant,” said Weinstein. “I bought six of them, including the Max Levy Autograph Company, where we are getting closer to breaking ground for 32 apartments.”
A major sign of Philly Office Retail’s commitment to Wayne Junction is moving its headquarters to 4701 Germantown Avenue, in the former Schaeffer School, built in 1876. The real estate company’s newest tenants are located next to the former bearing factor on the same block as the church. They include Attic Brewing, Deke’s Bar-B-Q, and Four Front digital marketing.