Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Fall 2023 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
Mount Sharon Baptist Church
Location: 1609 West Girard Avenue
At the turn of the 20th century, as Girard Avenue west of Broad Street was becoming one of Philadelphia’s most sought-after addresses, William Lightfoot Price designed this French Gothic Revival house at 1609 West Girard Avenue for Ferdinand Keller, a significant importer of antiques to Philadelphia. Price, by then well-known for his suburban residential work in Wayne and Overbrook Farms, also received commissions for grand mansions due to his early training under Frank Furness and Addison Hutton. His design for this fashionable urban mansion features a loggia-style porch beneath a prominent segmental arch with a limestone-trimmed facade.
In 1949, as neighborhood demographics were shifting and the neighborhood became predominantly African American, Reverend Berkley Hall founded the Mount Sharon Baptist Church, where he preached racial justice and equity until his death in 1960. Mount Sharon Church purchased 1609 West Girard Avenue in 1970 to house its growing congregation. Hall’s daughter, Prathia, who had served as a field organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) throughout the South, became pastor in 1978, continuing her father’s legacy. Prathia remained preaching at Mount Sharon until she died in 2002, passing the church’s stewardship to her sister, Betty Hall.
Since then, the building’s condition has deteriorated rapidly, with multiple unsafe violations from the Department of Licenses and Inspections. The congregation, under the leadership of Hall and Pastor Clarence Smith, started a capital campaign in 2017 for urgently needed repairs to the building, to little visible effect. Currently, legal disputes over ownership have tied up an Act 135 petition to remediate the building’s condition. The property is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and contributes to the Girard Avenue National Register Historic District, but without significant repairs, this building, tied to both Philadelphia’s Gilded Age and Civil Rights history, will be lost.
Church of the Advocate
Location: 1801 Diamond Street
Threat: Deferred Maintenance
The George W. South Memorial Church of the Advocate in the Diamond Street Historic District is an architectural marvel as well as a beacon of social justice. Originally designed to be Philadelphia’s Episcopal Cathedral by architect Charles M. Burns, the church complex, centering on a French Gothic-style cloister, suggests a medieval cathedral compound. Burns based the church itself on a 13th-century French basilica, complete with flying buttresses. The soaring interior, featuring intricate carved stonework and English stained glass, is no less impressive. The Church of the Advocate is rightly celebrated as a major monument in the American Gothic Revival movement.
The Church of Advocate’s Episcopal founders specified from the start that the church should be “free for all time.” Those lofty goals continued to guide the congregation into the 20th century as the church, under the leadership of Rev. Paul Washington, became a pioneer in providing social services to its North Philadelphia community and an important center of civil rights activism. The Third Annual National Conference on Black Power in 1968, the 1970 Black Panther conference and the first ordination of women in the Episcopal Church in 1974 all took place there. Between 1973 and 1976, Rev. Washington commissioned 14 large-scale murals depicting vignettes of the Black experience in America, including slavery, emancipation and scenes from the Civil Rights Movement, for the aisles and transepts. Together, the Gothic Revival architecture and the modern murals powerfully express the church’s contemporary religious and social mission.
Unfortunately, the church’s dwindling congregation is struggling to keep up with necessary maintenance and repairs. Safety nets hang from the ceiling to catch falling ceiling plaster. Without an influx of funding, the building will continue to deteriorate, threatening its architecture and history.
Old Montgomery County Jail
Location: 35 East Airy Street, Norristown
In 1849, Montgomery County selected Napoleon LeBrun, famed for Philadelphia’s Academy of Music and the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, to design both the county courthouse and county jail. His design for the jail drew both on John Haviland’s Eastern State Penitentiary, with its imposing Gothic-style façade, and on Thomas U. Walter’s Moyamensing Prison, with its prominent central tower. The jail’s layout follows the requirements of the Pennsylvania Solitary Confinement System, considered modern and enlightened at the time. The structure covers nearly an entire block between Airy and Maris streets and faces LeBrun’s courthouse, erected a few years later.
While the still-active courthouse has been remodeled, enlarged and modernized over the years, LeBrun’s jail ended its active life in 1986, when the county needed a maximum-security facility. Since its closure, the county has performed limited maintenance to prevent deterioration. In July, county commissioners awarded an almost $1 million demolition contract to clear the site. Community preservationists are working to promote the preservation and reuse of the façade, which, along with the courthouse, dominates the Norristown Central National Register Historic District streetscape.
Ahavath Israel Synagogue
Location: 6735 North 16th Street
Acclaimed architect Louis Kahn’s first independent project was a synagogue, Ahavath Israel, in the West Oak Lane neighborhood. The conservative synagogue, founded in 1927 to serve a growing Eastern European immigrant population living along the North Broad Street corridor, occupied the middle of a block of typical Philadelphia rowhouses. Kahn’s design conveys an informal and neighborly feel, yet maintains a sense of ceremony. Its block-like mass, for example, disrupts and overpowers the streetscape, while the plain brick façade (originally one continuous tone), with its recessed entryway with two double doors and three small windows, blends in with the neighboring houses. Kahn placed a larger expanse of windows on the western and rear elevations and kept the interior layout simple: a split-level entry foyer, a two-story prayer hall with a women’s balcony, a basement social hall and a rear caretaker’s apartment. A rear band of windows on the top story illuminated the bimah (prayer platform), an early modernist touch that would inspire Kahn’s later designs.
The synagogue remained the home of Ahavath Israel until 1982, when it was sold to Grace Temple Baptist Church, a primarily African American congregation that still holds services there today. Though altered over the years, the building deserves greater recognition as Kahn’s first built work, including listing on the Philadelphia Register, especially since only a handful of extant Kahn designs survive in the city he called home.