Preservation

North Broad Street Church Revived with Community Impact Reuse Plan

November 18, 2022 | by Kimberly Haas

Trinity Reformed Church at Broad and Venango Streets was built in 1911. Under the leadership of Reverend Leon Sullivan, Zion Baptist Church purchased the building for an annex in 1969. Plans to convert the former sanctuary into a mixed-use community center are currently in the works. | Photo: Michael Bixler

There are an estimated 800 buildings in Philadelphia that were erected as houses of worship. The number of churches currently in use is far fewer, and each year a few succumb to the wrecking ball. Others get repurposed into homes, an attractive reuse of the striking stone, stained glass, and other architectural features that many contain.

Yet, that sort of reuse ignores the purpose for which the buildings were originally created: to be in the service of a community. With that in mind, in 2018 the Community Design Collaborative (CDC) and Partners for Sacred Places issued a challenge. Congregations with buildings that now exceeded their religious needs could propose new uses for part or all of the spaces to provide services needed by their neighborhoods. The project, Infill Philadelphia: Sacred Places/Civic Spaces, would pair three winning proposals with a community partner organization and a pro bono design team to help bring the project to fruition.

One of the three proposals selected was from Zion Baptist Church, in the Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood, for a 100 year old stone church building across from its main location. The congregation envisioned it becoming home to an array of services, including an urgent care health clinic, a small business incubator, and a grocery store. “We are situated in a food desert,” Reverend Michael Major Sr. said in 2018 at an event that unveiled the winning proposals. He is the founder and board president of Called to Serve Community Development Corporation (CTS), the community partner for the project.

Trinity Reformed Church in 1925. | Photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

The building at North Broad and Venango Streets was built in 1911 to house the merger of two congregations, Trinity Reformed Church, which had its origins in the Old First Reformed Church at 4th and Race Streets, and Tioga Reformed Church. It was enlarged in 1928 by architect Horace W. Castor. A carillon of 25 bells was added two years later. When the congregation relocated to Bucks County in 1969, taking the carillon and pipe organ with it, the church building was purchased by neighboring Zion Baptist Church and its pastor, the civil rights leader Reverend Leon Sullivan, nicknamed the “Lion of Zion.”

For the next four decades the church used the building, referred to as the Zion Baptist Church Annex, to offer social service and youth programs to the surrounding community. Eventually, it fell behind on maintenance of the aging building and closed it in 2014. Thieves quickly took advantage of the situation. “It deteriorated extra quickly because of vandals,” said Brian Szmanik, principal with Studio 6mm, the design firm partner for the project. “They stole copper flashings and anything metal. In doing so, they opened up all the roof seams which caused water infiltration and damage to the interior. They were almost surgical, stealing the chandeliers from 40 foot ceilings, then returning the next week and taking all the doorknobs, after that, the radiators, until they’d gotten everything.”

The pairing of Zion Baptist Church with Studio 6mm was a fortunate one. With its extensive experience in working in existing buildings, the design firm was able to address the congregation’s concerns about the project. “In 2018, we were invited to walk through the annex,” recalled Szymanik. “It was clear that the members of the congregation had a lot of apprehension about the state of the building. Given what we do, we’d seen much worse. We said, ‘It’s not as bad as you think it is. It has good bones.’ You could see the relief on their faces and the great love they have for the building.”

Sketches of Trinity Reformed Church’s expansion in 1928 by architect Horace W. Castor. | Images courtesy of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

At 27,000 square feet, the Reverend Leon H. Sullivan Community Impact Center, as it is now called, has ample room to address a variety of community needs in a neighborhood that has many.

The first floor will include a café co-op bookstore, a Temple University admissions outreach office, e-sports center, and Temple Medical School’s Farm to Families fresh produce program. Reverend Major is especially enthusiastic about the e-sports center, which will be able to convert into a computer center. “Reverend Sullivan used basketball as a hook to engage youth,” he explained, recalling his own introduction to Zion Baptist Church while growing up in the neighborhood. “What’s the current equivalent? E-sports. We want to use video games to engage them and as an entrée to career development.”

The second floor will provide spaces for offices and staff who provide community services, like the Temple University Lenfest North Philadelphia Workforce Initiative, a job skills training program. The Center for Urban Bioethics at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University will offer several programs to address substance abuse, violence intervention, trauma-informed programs for public schools, and a chapter of St. Christopher’s Foundation for Children’s Farm to Families Program, which provides low-cost access to fresh produce.

The latter program will replace the part of the original proposal that included a grocery store in the main sanctuary. As planning began with Studio 6mm, “it became apparent it wasn’t going to work,” recalled Reverend Major. “Traditional groceries, and even boutique groceries, need a larger footprint than what was possible in the building.”

Reverend Leon Sullivan preaches to the congregation of Zion Baptist Church in 1970. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

In addition to space considerations, financial issues were also a factor. “We had two options for the space,” explained Szymanik. “The first was a co-op grocery. The second was the conference center and event space, which would generate rental revenue. One of Reverend Major’s concerns was the sustainability of the project, so the conference center won out.”

The third floor will include an art center and gallery, three rental art studios, and an art therapy program, plus the CTS offices.

Even with ample square footage, it is a complex challenge to fit all the particular needs of these programs into an old building originally designed for a much different use. “You want to respect the history of the place, so you need to carefully situate the new elements,” Szymanik said. “Almost all of our projects are in existing structures. We appreciate the complexities of working with these old buildings.”

Another driving factor in maintaining the integrity and character of the building is the role that historic tax credits will play in the financing of the project. The overall goal is $11 million. Recently, the William Penn Foundation granted the project $1 million, bringing the total of grants and pledges to $3.3 million. With an anticipated additional $4.6 million in historic tax credits and other grants, the remaining balance to be raised stands at $3.3 million.

Renderings of the Reverend Leon H. Sullivan Community Impact Center’s new entrance, art studio, and esports room. | Images courtesy of Studio 6mm

Subsequent to the start of this project, the City began developing plans to improve the intersections and amenities at North Broad Street, Erie, and Germantown Avenues, just up the block from Zion Baptist Church. “I think it’s in line with our plans,” said Reverend Major. “They’re both an effort to revitalize the community,” also noting other projects nearby, like the Beury Building and North Ten Philadelphia’s Be a Gem Crossing affordable housing development plans at Germantown Avenue and Westmoreland Street.

“Even when we were planning the CDC proposal, we knew that things were coming, that the neighborhood was going to see investment,” recalled Szymanik.

Called to Serve and Zion Baptist Church continue their fundraising efforts and are targeting construction to begin in the second quarter 2023 with an anticipated opening in late 2024.


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About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

4 Comments:

  1. Rstr says:

    Wonderful! Glad to see Temple involved in preservation for once.

    1. DG says:

      Rstr missed the entire point of this article. Temple had nothing to do with this plan or preservation. They will be a tenant in the Impact Center. Congrats to Rev Major and Called to Serve CDC for the work they are doing to restore the annex.

  2. Add luben silent movie theater In 1912 at 2846 north 22nd street in north philadelphia one ɓlock from Dobbin votech
    Where I attend 1967 ‐1971Allen Meyers please at 856723 3226 for a chap tĥx

  3. ronald Jewell says:

    this is very beautiful and well organized.
    To Partner with a Jesus centered church and not just talking the talk but also walking the walk.
    Rev. Buck and now Rev. Major and “Called to serve” I find solice that great minds and harts still exist.

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