A committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission has recommended that the embattled First African Baptist Church at 16th and Christian streets in South Philadelphia qualifies as a historically significant building and should be added to the local register of historic places.
A controversy has been brewing around the church for months. Its pastor, Terrence Griffith, says the building has become too expensive to maintain. Griffith, who is also president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia, wants to sell the building to a developer and move the congregation elsewhere. The developer, Gary Jonas of HOW Properties, had planned to purchase the property, tear down the church, and build condos. Jonas told PlanPhilly on Wednesday that that agreement is on hold pending the determination of the building's historic status.
Part of the congregation is on board with Griffith's plan. But other congregants, and some local preservation advocacy groups, say the church structure itself has too much historic value to be demolished. Some of the congregants have filed an injunction to block the sale of the property, according to the Inquirer. It was nominated for historical protection by Oscar Beisert, a private citizen with a background in architectural history who's quickly becoming a nomination machine; he had a hand in five of the eight nominations considered by the committee on Wednesday.
The nomination says that the building, which was erected in 1906 and designed by Watson & Huckel, is one of the oldest "purpose-built" black churches in Philadelphia. It's also significant as the home of First African Baptist, the oldest black Baptist congregation in Philadelphia.
But Sharif Street, a lawyer for Griffith and the son of former mayor John Street, noted that the church wasn't the first home of the congregation, which dates back to 1809. Street also said that because a bell tower on the church was removed, it shouldn't be considered eligible for historic protection.
The meeting room was packed to the gills, and attendees were split over the question of designation.
"This is one of the oldest black Baptist churches that has its own building, and I think it would be a crime to destroy this building," said Oscar Hankinson, a congregant.
Prudence Harvey, another congregant and advocate for preserving the building, said it was "somewhat disgraceful that we have most of these black folks in here who want to tear down their own heritage."
Griffith said that the cost of maintaining the building has become a threat to the survival of the church itself. He said the people who had nominated the church for historic protection had "come out of the woodwork" after hearing about the development plan. and that if they were serious about preserving the building they should put up the money themselves. Moe Brooker, a congregant and member of the Philadelphia Art Commission, sided with Griffith.
"I would suggest that the people here value the true heritage," said Sharif Street, Griffith's lawyer. "And the true heritage is found in the people, not in the building."
A number of pieces are still moving. The Historical Commission has technically had jurisdiction over the building since the time it notified the owners that a nomination for historic designation would be considered. (That rule prevents owners from summarily demolishing buildings as soon as they learn of a nomination.)
The committee's vote does not guarantee the building will be saved. The vote is a non-binding recommendation to the full Historical Commission, which will vote on whether to register the church at its meeting next month.
At the same time, the Department of Licenses & Inspections has declared the property unsafe. An engineering report on the condition of the building is due in court at the beginning of October, according to the Inquirer.
The building is also under a protective covenant with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which granted $75,000 toward church repairs under Governor Ed Rendell's administration in 2006. The covenant lasts until 2021. Street contends that the covenant is non-binding, a claim that is rebutted by the preservation advocates and the state.
All that matters to the Committee on Historic Designations, however, is whether the building qualifies under the designation criteria to be placed on the historic register. The committee members agreed unanimously that it does. Committee member Bruce Laverty said that even if the building falls down tomorrow, it's still historically significant today. Other committee members questioned how dangerous the building could really be if the church continues to hold services there.
The Historical Commission will meet on Oct. 9th to determine whether to designate the church. If it declines to do so, Griffith could sell it at any time. If it votes to designate the building, the owners would be barred from demolishing or altering the structure unless they're able to prove that it presents a hardship.
PlanPhilly is now a project of WHYY/NewsWorks. It began in 2006 as an initiative of Penn Praxis inside the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Though now part of WHYY, PlanPhilly still works closely with Penn Praxis in covering planning, zoning and development news.