Philadelphia has no shortage of church buildings, many of them old, elegant, and the work of famous architects. Today, like many communities, the city seems to be short on congregations to fill these buildings, which often leads to, at best, adaptive reuse, and, at worst, neglect, abandonment, or demolition.
In West Philadelphia, recent real estate transactions and actions by the Philadelphia Historical Commission present a study in contrasts of two such church buildings. Mount Olivet Tabernacle Baptist Church at 647 N. 42nd Street and Emmanuel Christian Church, formerly known as the Hickman African Methodist Episcopal Church and Saint Paul’s Presbyterian Church, at 5001 Baltimore Avenue are less than two miles from each other, yet worlds apart in other ways.
Both were built for congregations founded around the turn of the 20th century, with Mt. Olivet dating to 1901 and the original congregation for the other, St. Paul’s, beginning as a tent ministry on its site at 5001 Baltimore Avenue in 1898. St. Paul’s was built in 1901 and Mt. Olivet was completed in 1923.
St. Paul’s was the work of Isaac Pursell, a well-known church architect in 19th and early 20th century Philadelphia. Pursell embellished it with features typical of Gothic Revival ecclesiastical style, including stained glass windows with tracery, lancet windows, castellation along the roofline, and facades of Wissahickon Schist and other stone. He also designed additions, completed in 1905, that included a chapel and Sunday school facilities,.
While Mt. Olivet’s exterior is a less elaborate iteration of Gothic Revival style. However, its interior is particularly striking with a large number of stained glass windows that not only depict Biblical motifs, but also commemorate leading figures in the church’s history, many of which had been funded by groups such as Bible class members and extended families. Mount Olivet was not the work of a famed architect. “Mount Olivet defied the West Philadelphia trend at the time,” explained Amy Lambert, an architect and president of the University City Historical Society (UCHS), which nominated both church buildings for inclusion on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. “Instead of buying a white church when that congregation relocated, they built theirs with their own hands.” Lambert meant that literally. Mt. Olivet’s website notes, “The present site of the Mt. Olivet Tabernacle Baptist Church was purchased in 1914. Various members joined in the actual work of digging the foundation and erecting the structure of the building. In the fall of 1924, work on the new building was sufficiently completed to allow the congregation to move into the basement of the new church.” Church records note that the contractor overseeing the construction was a member of the congregation.
The congregation at St. Paul’s, by contrast, subsequently took the more familiar route. They sold their church to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1974 after the fewer than 100 remaining members asked for the congregation to be dissolved following an unsuccessful attempt at merging with Bethany Temple Presbyterian Church at 53rd and Spruce Streets and Oak Park United Presbyterian Church at 51st and Pine Streets. For the next 48 years the building was known as the Hickman Temple AME Church.
Over time the two churches shared a common struggle like many other religious buildings: as congregations decreased, the needs of their older buildings increased, often leading to deferred maintenance of major issues.
The congregation of Hickman Temple in particular struggled, even being forced to relocate their services in 2017 when the sanctuary’s 50th Street facade began to separate from the main body of the building. After months of fundraising and repair work, they were able to return to the church, which was now shored up by large steel braces supporting the exterior walls.
In 2020, as residents and business owners in the surrounding neighborhood grew concerned about the state and the fate of the building, UCHS submitted a nomination to the Historical Commission for its inclusion on the local register. 18 months of discussions with church leaders ensued, resulting in UCHS rescinding the nomination. “Pastor Nelson was deeply offended by UCHS’s intention to nominate the building,” explained Lambert.
With the possibility of historic designation off the table, the congregation of Hickman Temple put the church building up for sale. In June 2022, they sold it to the Emmanuel Christian Center, which had been founded five years prior and was located nearby at 59th and Chestnut Streets. Despite the City’s assessment valuing the property at $801,000, the sale price was $1.75 million, with records indicating a mortgage of $1.7 million.
Meanwhile, UCHS had turned their attention elsewhere. “Mt. Olivet reached out and asked us to nominate,” Lambert recalled. “They are proud of their building and want it to remain part of the landscape of their neighborhood.”
The nomination highlighted Mt. Olivet’s history in the development of the African American community in West Philadelphia during the early 20th century, as part of the Great Migration, which was characterized by the mass influx of millions of migrants to the North from the South from 1910 to 1970. Also of note is its association with Reverend Marshall L. Shepard, a civil rights activist and close colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. Shepard served as Mt. Olivet’s pastor from 1926 until his death in 1967. The Historical Commission approved the designation of Mt. Olivet in January of this year.
In the interim, circumstances had not been kind to Hickman Temple, now Emmanuel Christian Church. As historic elements of the building were altered or removed, including many of its stained glass windows, UCHS decided to once again step in. With the cooperation of the new owners, it submitted a revised nomination to the Historical Commission in November 2022.
A sad twist of fate was revealed earlier this year. While interior demolition and construction was being done, Paul Brown, an architectural salvager, offered to buy the church’s two large stained glass rose windows and other artifacts for $6,000, rather than see them destroyed. After removing, cleaning, and repairing them, he took the windows to Freeman’s Auctions where appraisers identified them as Tiffany glass that had been commissioned in 1904 in Pursell’s expansion that created the church’s chapel.
The windws subsequently sold for $100,000 each, although who will ultimately pocket the proceeds is far from clear. Brown had said he’d consider sharing some of it with the congregation, but recently the church’s mortgager, Fulton Bank, has stepped in, claiming the windows were part of the mortgage lien.
A hard lesson for a cash-strapped project, for sure, but perhaps it will lead the congregation to see their new home in a different light and value its history. As Lambert observed, “They’ve had a lot of hurdles getting into the building, and will face more, either getting onto the National Register or qualifying for grant money from the National Trust.”
Despite the window removal and other damages that have occurred, at its June 2023 meeting the Historical Commission agreed with the new nomination that Emmanuel Christian Church qualifies for historic designation under four criteria. Two criteria address the building’s features, representing Gothic Revival architecture and being the work of the significant church architect Isaac Pursell. The other two refer to its role as a familiar landmark in its Cedar Park neighborhood, while also reflecting its cultural and social history.
Like the Hickman Temple congregation, Mt. Olivet’s has decided to move on. The church building and parking lot at 647 North 42nd Street is in the process of being sold to another church community. Remaining committed to their West Philadelphia neighborhood, the congregation intends to rent facilities while it searches for a new home. As senior pastor Andre Price explained in an email, “Mount Olivet Tabernacle Baptist Church is a people, not a building. While I am disappointed that we are not able to keep the building, I am proud that we are selling the building to another church. This is a success because we are exhibiting an otherwise model for how churches in our position may move forward. While the financial resources will be helpful for reinvesting in the ministry, this was not a money grab for us. For that reason we sought historical status. We wanted to preserve the legacy and honor the sacrifices of those saints who came before us and built that structure with their sweat equity,” said Price.
While historic designation does not guarantee preservation for any site, the hope for both of these church buildings is a future that will include respect and sensitivity to their historic nature when alterations are done or ownership and uses change.