Its spire that once towered over South Philadelphia is gone. Its green, serpentine stone is chipped. And while thousands of dollars have been spent fixing its collapsing walls and roof, the sanctuary at the 19th Street Baptist Church is unusable.
After decades of fighting the inevitable, the 115-member, predominantly African American congregation is tired. Members say they are ready to move on.
It's a story that Philadelphia and other large cities know well: Congregations are dwindling, and as sacred places are deteriorating, they are depleting their money for repairs. Church leaders have searched extensively for other religious groups to take over, only to find that developers can meet the price they need. And so, despite neighborhood protests or pleas for preservation, historic churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues have been leveled one by one.
In Philadelphia, that's happened at least 23 times between 2011 and 2015 alone, according to estimates from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The historic 19th Street Baptist Church, however, refuses to be a part of that statistic.
In a decision strikingly different from the Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church in West Philadelphia and the Christian Street Baptist Church in Bella Vista, both of which were sold to developers intending to demolish them, the pastor of 19th Street Baptist Church said this week that while his congregation is ready to move on, members do not want the church to be flattened. When they list the church, built in 1874, for sale, they hope to attract a preservation-minded buyer, who can restore — or perhaps redevelop — it and retain the unique facade.
"It's easy to take the money and run," said the Rev. Wilbur Winborne Sr., who was married and ordained in the 19th Street Baptist Church and returned to lead it almost five years ago. "But if we can try [to save it], let's try. Why not? … I don't want to have any regrets."
At first glance, it would seem that outcome is almost guaranteed. The church, designed by George Hewitt, in partnership with prominent Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, has been listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places since 1984. That gives the property, at 1249-1253 S. 19th St. in Point Breeze, protection from demolition and non-historic alterations.
Yet with Philadelphia quickly changing these days, even a designation on the Historic Register does not guarantee that a building will stand forever. In the last few years, developers have successfully argued in front of the Philadelphia Historical Commission that redeveloping a historic property, instead of demolishing it, would be a hardship, thereby reversing its historic preservation status and allowing the property to fall.
Recent examples underscore how that tactic has worked. In the last seven years, separate developers have argued victoriously that preserving the Boyd Theatre on the 1900 block of Chestnut Street, as well as the Samuel Sloan-designed Italianate mansion at 40th and Pine Streets, would be a "financial hardship," meaning it would be economically impossible to adapt a property due to its current physical — and often dilapidated — state. Both were ultimately demolished, and new housing has sprouted in their place.
Beyond appealing on a financial level, developers have found demolition victories using other strategies, too. Some, such as the Curtis Institute of Music, have been granted demolition permits because they are "necessary in the public interest" — meaning that the benefits of the proposed razing and development far outweigh the historic site as it stands.
Other savvy developers, meanwhile, have found success convincing L&I that their buildings are imminently dangerous, necessitating demolition, despite being historically designated. Developers Harvey and Robert Spear did so more than a decade ago at Front and Chestnut Streets, when an L&I inspector who was not assigned to the Old City area declared their two 1800s buildings as imminently dangerous. While the buildings were disheveled, they were not bad enough to convince the Historical Commission to give the Spears the financial hardship. So the Spears resorted to another way to take them down: Using L&I's dangerous declaration to their advantage.
L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss said that a situation such as the one involving the Spears would not be possible today. Under the department's current policies, she said, "a historic property under the threat of demolition could not be designated as imminently dangerous without multiple levels of internal review, consultation with the Historical Commission, and in many cases, one or more reports from an outside engineering firm."
Even so, preservation advocates remain concerned that the 19th Street Baptist Church could still be vulnerable to demolition.
"The church has been contacted by developers well before making the announcement" about the future sale, said Rachel Hildebrandt, a senior program manager for Partners for Sacred Places, a national nonprofit dedicated to preserving sacred spaces. "It's definitely a target."
As multiple portions of the church remain in disrepair, many fear it would be financially difficult for a preservation-minded buyer to save — especially given the expected price. Though the property has not been listed, Winborne said he is looking to other South Philadelphia church sales as a barometer.
They get "$1.5 million to $2 million on a really good day," Winborne said. "If by some strange reason, we could get $2.5 million and save the church, I would be ecstatic."
Stephen Wagner, a developer with experience redeveloping historic properties, said preserving the property at such a high asking price might be difficult. Wagner said he toured the property recently, and although it is a "fabulous building inside" and the "sanctuary is a great space," a buyer would face "very expensive exterior work" to restore the weathered serpentine stone, which dates to the Victorian period. Considerable work is also needed to stabilize the sanctuary.
Plus, whoever purchases the building would have to contend with its current "unsafe" designation from L&I — meaning the 10,700-square-foot church is dangerous, but not critically unstable. The congregation, which has been using its fellowship hall to worship, anticipates it may be ordered to vacate the church later this year.
"There should definitely be a concern that it's a target for demolition," said Patrick Grossi, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. "It's a large site — you could probably construct anywhere from six to eight townhouses there. It's in a strong housing market. And the property clearly needs some love."
Despite its designation as being unsafe, the "property is historic and the hope is that a buyer will restore it to [a] safe condition," said Guss, the L&I spokeswoman.
"In its current condition, it will remain standing," she continued. But, "if [the] building deteriorates and [the] risk of collapse increases, L&I will demolish it to protect public safety."
Still, Winborne and the congregation — which has nearly doubled in the last four years — has much working on its behalf. Partners for Sacred Places is helping to find a preservationist buyer, as is the Preservation Alliance. Plus, over the years, it's received help from former Mayor Wilson Goode, an ordained minister himself, as well as University of Pennsylvania students and professors Aaron Wunsch and Frank Matero, who have researched the building, provided reports and guidance for its restoration, and applied for and administered emergency repair grants.
Already, Winborne said, the church has multiple potential preservation-buyers in mind.
"We want to have the resources to be able to relocate and worship and still drive down 19th Street five years from now and see the building is still there," Winborne said. "Even though churches are being moved out, the community still needs a church."