Preservation

Historic Church in Mt. Airy Blessed With Preservation

March 4, 2021 | by Stacia Friedman

Saint Michael’s Evangelical Lutheran Church at 6671 Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy. | Photo: Michael Bixler

When Paul Revere allegedly cried, “The British are coming!” he wasn’t riding a horse up the Great Road, now known as Germantown Avenue. If he had, he would have encountered a strange sight. British troops running down the avenue celebrating their victory of the Battle of Germantown by blowing on pipes ripped out of the organ at Saint Michael’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Now, it isn’t the Continental Army that is advancing down Germantown Avenue. It’s urban revitalization, conducted with an eye to historic preservation by developer Ken Weinstein. After his company Philly Office Retail purchased the 125-year-old church at 6671 Germantown Avenue, Weinstein repurposed it without altering its place of pride in the community. The only indication of change is a discreet sign that reads “Mt Airy Pediatrics.”

The congregation of St. Michael’s first church, pictured here in 1865, was built around 1730. | Image courtesy of Germantown Historical Society

“We renovated the church’s social hall and leased it to Mt. Airy Pediatrics,” said Weinstein who noted that this adaptive reuse was recently nominated for a 2021 Preservation Alliance Community Preservation Award. The only building on the property that was sold is the parsonage, a three-story Federal-style house built in 1855 that will be renovated into apartments.

Philly Office Retail still owns the three other buildings on the church grounds: the chapel, the social hall (formerly St. Thomas Hall), and the historic Beggarstown Schoolhouse that was built in 1740. As for the 5,000-square-foot Gothic Revival church, designed by Philadelphia architect T. Frank Miller in 1896 with stained glass windows by William Reith, it is available for rent.

The former Beggarstown Schoolhouse at 6669 Germantown Avenue in 1972. | Image: Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Library of Congress

Originally named the German Lutheran Congregation, Saint Michael’s was founded in 1728 by German immigrants in what we now know as Mt. Airy, but, at the time, was Germantown, a rural borough outside the city limits. The original grounds covered four acres. The first church is believed to have been built in 1730. In 1740, the Beggarstown School, a rare surviving example of a one-room Colonial era school building, was erected on its grounds as one of the first Sunday school’s in America. The name Beggarstown refers to the original name of the village that had existed along Germantown Avenue between Upsal Street and Gorgas Lane. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the former schoolhouse, in use for education until 1818, is currently Alena’s Cafe, a popular breakfast and lunch eatery. When the original church building was expanded with a bell tower in 1746, Benjamin Franklin was among the contributors. A deist, Franklin was an avid supporter of all religious denominations, including synagogues.

Saint Michael’s reflected its members challenge of, not just British rule, but of Old World doctrine. Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, considered the father of Lutheranism in the United States, immigrated to Philadelphia in 1742 and brought with him an autocratic, European style that did not play well with the American congregants. Muhlenberg dictated the selection of pastors at three churches, including Saint Michael’s. By the 1760s, Saint Michael’s rebelled and demanded the right to elect their own pastor, a radical idea at the time. The conflict rose to the colonial Supreme Court, resulting in granting the right of free elections to the congregants and, in doing so, setting the tone for the U.S. Constitution.

Saint Michael’s Church and cemetery in 1903. | Image courtesy of Germantown Historical Society

“It was groundbreaking because it inverted the traditional European paradigm that had authorized the landed gentry and city councils to oversee congregations,” wrote Reverend Karl Krueger, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in his contribution to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

During the Battle of Germantown in 1777, the parsonage was looted and the church was occupied by the Continental Army. 700 Patriots were killed and wounded. Another 400 were captured. According to lore, George Washington took time out from commanding troops to knock back a few beers at a Colonial Inn next to the church. Saint Michael’s Cemetery, now under the supervision of United Lutheran Seminary in Mt. Airy, contains the graves of five Revolutionary and 20 Civil War soldiers, as well as seven from the War of 1812.

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About the Author

Stacia Friedman Stacia Friedman is a Philadephia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and LA on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, the Inquirer, New York Times, Broad Street Review and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history and vibrant arts scene.

12 Comments:

  1. Deb Dempsey says:

    Paul Revere said “the British are coming.” Most regiments weren’t wearing red.

  2. Joan says:

    This is wonderful news. My family history notes have my Trout/Raes ancestors married in St. Michaels in 1761. Some 160 yrs. later their descendant, my grandpop, moved from Centre Co., PA, back to Germantown unaware of his family history there. He manned a trolley and lived a few houses down from the trolley barn and a few blocks from St. Michaels, which he joined and in which some 27 years later, my parents were married. St. Michaels also holds a plaque memorializing several of its military members who died in WW2, one of whom was my grandpop’s son. A lot of history. Thank you, Ms. Friedman, for writing this article.

  3. Renee Coleman says:

    Very interesting information I’ve lived in Mt Airy all my life and I’m learning more and more history.I remember before the church closed how they ran a soup kitchen and fed many needy people

  4. Paul says:

    Are you confusing Ben Franklin with William Penn, a Quaker ?
    Mr. Franklin was not a Quaker, he helped organize the militia for goodness sake. Quakers are pacifists. Ben was born & baptized in Boston & later belonged to Christ Church in Philly which is Episcopal (was originally The Church of England)

  5. James Villarreal says:

    I did therapy with homeless men in the church hall for two years.They were all my former students from Henry School.I had my own set of keys entrusted to me by the pastor. I also did democratic political work at elections there for thirty-five years…

  6. Robby says:

    Benjamin Franlkin was a Quaker? From what alternate history does that come from?

  7. Ann Doley says:

    I love this story for its mix of history, preservation, adaptive reuse and also respect for the deceased. Kudos Ken Weinstein! From a Germantown resident and history buff.

    1. Sandra H. Dowell says:

      I grew up in old historic Germantown with my seven siblings. I now live in East Mt Airy for many years and I often walk past St. Michael’s Church and Cemetery. I often stop to honor and read the names on the headstones, but most are worn away with the passage of time. So many historic places to visit in Philadelphia, a city full of history.

  8. Barbara Hogue says:

    Benjamin Franklin was not a Quaker.

  9. Frank jenkins says:

    Great job of research.

  10. Allan says:

    The author clearly states that Franklin was a deist (not a Quaker). He contributed to the church because he was interested in fostering all religious groups.

  11. Anne says:

    My ancestors are buried in the graveyard =some from late 1700’s. What is going to be done to the property? Hesser’s- there are quite a few= any info would be great
    Anne Hesser

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