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Venerable Arch St. church embraces the busy environs its corporate neighbor creates

Arch Street Presbyterian Church wants to open its doors to the changes its neighbor, Comcast Corp., is bringing to the area - just as soon as those doors are installed.

The Rev. Bill Golderer: "We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to forge a new human dimension of what this neighborhood is all about."
The Rev. Bill Golderer: "We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to forge a new human dimension of what this neighborhood is all about."Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Arch Street Presbyterian Church wants to open its doors to the changes its neighbor, Comcast Corp., is bringing to the area - just as soon as those doors are installed.

The church will soon replace a row of windows on its southern wall with three doors, giving it a new link to the bustling plaza at the center of Comcast's growing corporate campus.

Almost a decade after falling under the cable giant's shadow when the Comcast Center tower opened next door, Arch Street Presbyterian is seeking to reassert its 161-year-old presence at 18th and Arch. The new, though historically accurate, doors are being installed as an addendum to landscape and infrastructure improvements for the construction of Comcast's second Center City tower, the 60-story Comcast Technology Center, which is scheduled to open in 2018 to the west of the church.

Setting the doors in place will be relatively simple, but their impact could be profound, Arch Street Presbyterian's pastor, the Rev. Bill Golderer, said, as the church aspires to renew itself as a spiritual refuge within Philadelphia's hectic commercial core.

"I feel like we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to forge a new human dimension of what this neighborhood is all about," he said.

Comcast spokesman John Demming said Arch Street Presbyterian is "a beautiful church, and it complements the urban campus we've designed."

John Gattuso, regional director for Malvern-based developer Liberty Property Trust, the builder of both towers, said the church has always been considered a vital part of the campus.

"Rather than turn our back to the church or pretend it wasn't there, we use it as a focal point," Gattuso said.

Among historic churches, Arch Street Presbyterian's "cheek-by-jowl" proximity to a big corporate neighbor such as Comcast is probably unique in the United States, said A. Robert Jaeger, president of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places.

But it is among a growing number of houses of worship nationwide that have lingered in urban areas through decades of blight and are now participating in city revival, said Jaeger, whose group supports the upkeep of aging religious buildings.

In New York's East Village, for example, St. Mark's Church-in-the-

Bowery hung on as a religious center and arts venue through the neighborhood's troubled 1970s and early 1980s. Now, he said, it's a thriving link to the increasingly posh area's past.

Such cases are a happy counterpoint to the greater number of religious buildings regularly demolished or converted to other uses under pressure of development in revitalizing cities, said Georgette Phillips, a finance professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.

"It's keeping the congregation in the same physical space, while embracing change around it," said Phillips, who studies the role of religious sites in urban revitalization.

The neoclassical church structure now known as Arch Street Presbyterian was completed in 1855 to accommodate what was then among the nation's largest congregations of "Old School" Presbyterians, a conservative branch that backed the pro-slavery South.

Through most of the 20th century, though, membership declined as the neighborhoods surrounding the church shed their residential populations amid a drop-off in religious participation across the country.

By the time Golderer was named pastor in 2008 - the year the 58-story Comcast Center opened - the congregation had been reduced to only eight members, most in their 80s.

"They were all very good people," said Golderer, who came to Arch Street after founding the Broad Street Ministry across from the Kimmel Center. "They just had no interest in - or capacity for - envisioning what would be next."

Change came fast, with the Comcast Center's 4,000-strong workforce helping to raise the daytime population in his corner of Center City to a new critical mass. Workers for businesses such as Comcast were increasingly living in the area, too.

Golderer said he tapped into that growth with such initiatives as an on-site preschool, where the children of employees at Comcast and other companies learn alongside kids from lower-income families through a sliding-scale tuition system.

In a repudiation of the church's "Old School" roots, Golderer has also recruited new leaders to better reflect Center City's diversity of race, sex, and sexual orientation, he said. Thanks at least in part to those efforts, the church now has 125 congregants, workers at Comcast and other area companies among them, Golderer said.

But the pastor sees even brighter days ahead, thanks to the benefits the church will glean from the Comcast Technology Center, where another 4,000 people will come to work each day.

"They're creating opportunity and dynamism and animation on the block that it hasn't had, ever," Golderer said of Comcast.

The church's relationship with Comcast and developer Liberty Property Trust was forged during the construction of the cable company's headquarters tower, before Golderer's arrival. That building's planners secured the church's support by agreeing to build a new entry annex, with an elevator to its second floor, in an inconspicuous corner of Comcast Plaza.

The point, Golderer said, was to give visitors an alternative to the church's existing north entrance facing Arch Street, behind an iron gate and up steep stone steps.

But the annex's labyrinthine interior has stifled the church's engagement with the lively plaza, keeping the building oriented toward Arch Street, said Mark B. Thompson, the architect for the church renovations. Installing the three new doors on the church's southern wall will effectively flip that orientation, he noted.

"Just by placing these three doors here, we literally have taken a hundred million ton building and turned it around," Thompson said.

The price for the renovation - which also involves conversion of a church chapel into a new reception area for the cavernous sanctuary and expansion of its closet-sized bathrooms - is about $250,000, according to William Cobb, owner of the construction firm Haverstick-Borthwick Co., who volunteers at Arch Street.

That's much less than the church would pay if its crews were unable to rely on security fencing and other construction infrastructure that Liberty already has in place at the site, Thompson said.

The work "represents a physical manifestation of the congregation's spiritual adaptation," Golderer said.

"Where the old way was plodding and change-resistant, we are nimble and thrive in a changing spiritual and physical landscape."

215-854-2615 @jacobadelman