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Chester tries to save historic church

The terra-cotta roof and sprawling stone building are iconic in Chester, a sign on East Ninth Street of the city's prosperous past.

"The sanctuary would be perfect for a theater," says preservationist David Guleke.
"The sanctuary would be perfect for a theater," says preservationist David Guleke.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The terra-cotta roof and sprawling stone building are iconic in Chester, a sign on East Ninth Street of the city's prosperous past.

The red wooden doors of the 120-year-old building are now warped, and its windows are boarded up.

The historic Third Presbyterian Church could face the wrecking ball - unless a local preservation group is able to save it and raise enough money to restore it.

To the Presbytery of Philadelphia, the building is a crumbling liability. To the Chester Historical Preservation Committee, it is a local landmark that must be restored. And to some Chester officials, it is a wake-up call that the city should consider protecting its oldest buildings.

A contractor was ready to begin demolition this month. But that has been put on hold. Discussions are underway for the presbytery, which owns the building, to transfer the property deed to the Chester Historical Preservation Committee.

Preservation would be a massive undertaking for the small preservation group. Its activities typically include hosting tours and lectures.

"We'll need all the luck, help, prayers - whatever we can get," said the group's president, David Guleke.

The group will also need money for repairs, which could cost millions of dollars.

The church was built in 1895 and has not been used for worship in about 30 years, said Lawrence Davis, business manager for the Presbytery of Philadelphia.

Until last year, the church housed Chester Eastside Ministries, a social service organization affiliated with the Presbytery of Philadelphia.

The Presbytery of Philadelphia found the building structurally unsound and too expensive to maintain, Davis said.

"Our interest is not to prop up a building that we felt was in danger of collapse," he said.

Chester Eastside moved into St. Paul's Episcopal Church across the street. This fall, the presbytery's contractor applied for a demolition permit for the old church building.

"As soon as that crossed the city's desk, it raised some red flags, because that church, it's got some special history to it," said Paul Fritz, a consultant to the city's planning department. "And the architecture of it, too, is extraordinary."

But officials in the economically troubled Delaware County city had no grounds on which to reject the demolition application, and no means of saving the building.

Members of the Chester Historical Preservation Committee decided to step in.

Guleke said the church, which claims to be home to the country's first vacation Bible school and once drew crowds to its Sunday services, is a local treasure.

"It's just an amazing building," he said. "The sanctuary would be perfect for a theater or something like that."

Davis said last week that the presbytery was willing to transfer the property to the Chester Historical Preservation Committee at little or no cost.

The preservation group talks about raising money, applying for grants, and working with other local organizations to save the church.

Guleke said his organization would remain owner of the church but would hope to rent its Sunday school rooms as office space and use the sanctuary as a theater.

Meanwhile, Chester will consider adopting an ordinance to protect its oldest buildings from demolition.

Approximately one-third of municipalities in Southeastern Pennsylvania require additional hearings and reviews before historical buildings are demolished, said Charlie Schmehl, vice president of the Bethlehem-based Urban Research & Development Corp.

"Most communities do something after they have a major loss," said Schmehl, who is working as a consultant to help Chester rewrite its zoning code. "More and more are adopting demolition controls."

Davis said the presbytery had tried to discuss the future of the building with city officials for years but received little attention until they asked to demolish it.

Mayor John Linder said city officials had an interest in saving the church because it has "such nostalgic, historical value."

Linder said he hoped that restoration efforts could be paired with new development on empty land nearby.

But for now, the church's future remains uncertain.

"It's a great opportunity for the city to preserve that building, because it's such an iconic building, so we're hoping we can get everybody on board and really make it a real success story," Guleke said. "I know that's like pie in the sky, but that's our ultimate goal."