In Northern Liberties, where it seems like no street is unaffected by new construction, one block in particular stands out. At nearly a half million square feet of 404 residential units and commercial space, the development at 650 Fairmount Avenue will nearly fill the entire square block bounded by Green Street, 6th Street, Fairmount Avenue, and 7th Street.
One historic holdout in the immediate area remains. The brick facade and somewhat Byzantine style of 610 N. 6th Street stand out among block after block of ultra modern townhouses in the neighborhood. Telltale signs hinting at a varied past can be seen on its exterior. Current signage marks it as the home of both the Helping Hand Rescue Mission and the Christ Community Bible Church. A Star of David set in tile above the entryway indicates the building’s use as a synagogue, while a cornerstone dates the structure to 1833 and recalls its first function as a Presbyterian church.
Originally named the First Presbyterian Church of Penn Township, the congregation was an 1831 merger of the Second and Third Presbyterian Churches of the Northern Liberties. The former had been building the church at 6th and Green Streets, which the new congregation purchased and completed two years later. The name was subsequently changed to North Presbyterian Church.
A lithograph published in an 1895 book of Philadelphia Presbyterian churches shows a strikingly different facade from the building today, with two towers on either side of an ornate portico over the front entrance. A Franklin Fire Insurance Survey references a new front as “Byzantine Style.”
Soon after that publication, the congregation purchased an 80-by-100-foot lot on the northwest corner of Allegheny Avenue and Broad Street for $2,000. It erected a temporary frame chapel in 1899, then held a groundbreaking in 1906. That building still stands at 3201 N. Broad Street, having been purchased by Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1985 after the dissolution of the North Presbyterian Church congregation.
After its move, the congregation sold the 6th Street building to Bnei Halberstam for $17,000. Halberstam was founded in 1884 by a handful of immigrants from Galicia in what is now southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. It was named for Chaim Halberstam, a legendary Talmudic scholar in Sącz, Poland. It was the first Hasidic shtiebel in Philadelphia, a smaller version of a synagogue that also functioned as a community gathering place.
In addition to installing a Star of David above the front doors, Bnei Halberstam also made its mark on the interior. “In the upper balcony you can still see the Hebrew writing if you look a certain way,” said Adam Bruckner, director of the Helping Hand Rescue Mission. “There is an old relic over the staircase, a Jewish calendar around 70 or 100 years old.”
The building served that congregation for 60 years, but, as the neighborhood’s Jewish population began moving away, more and more members were unable to attend Sabbath services when driving would be forbidden. That prompted a merger with two other synagogues and a move to Logan in 1961. The merged synagogue lives on today after another move to Rhawnhurst in Northeast Philadelphia. The former church, and now former synagogue, was again put up for sale and acquired by the Helping Hand Rescue Mission in 1961.
Contradicting the building’s staid exterior and forbidding, barbed wire fencing, the Helping Hand Rescue Mission is a busy place inside. “We have three programs. On site, there’s the Helping Hand Rescue Mission, where people in need can use our food pantry, chapel, and clothing closet. It’s a place to get essentials and hang out during the day,” Bruckner explained. “Then we have our youth program, with after-school programs, youth chapel, a soccer academy, a theater group, and summer camp. And we serve a meal once a week in Center City at 19th and the Ben Franklin Parkway.”
The mission intends to continue its work as they have done for the 60 years it has occupied the building. “It’s because we own the building that we’re able to carry on,” he said. The only change Bruckner anticipates is that, within the next year, the mission will be surrounded by six-story buildings on their north and south sides and a complex of several others behind them.
Special thanks to the Presbyterian Historical Society, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, and the Free Library of Philadelphia for research assistance.