If you want a glimpse of what Philadelphia’s Northeast looked like before it was transformed from a farming community into a tangle of subdivisions and shopping centers, take a trip to Trinity Church Oxford in Lawndale. Built in 1711, it’s the second-oldest church in Philadelphia (after Old Swedes’ Church in Queen Village) and still has the look of a small country church. Rustic stone walls enclose the colonial-era graveyard, and immense trees shade the diminutive, red-brick sanctuary.
Like many old institutions, Trinity Oxford was initially unsure how to respond as changes came to the Northeast, an area that was once an independent municipality called Oxford Township. But in 1926, the Episcopal Diocese concluded that it had an obligation to serve the newcomers and launched a five-year plan to construct recreational facilities around the area. Two years later, Trinity decided to build a parish hall on Rising Sun Avenue, complete with a lavish gym and auditorium, to serve the growing neighborhood.
It is no accident that the handsome red-brick hall, located between Longshore Avenue and Disston Street, was designed in the Colonial Revival style by its architects, Thomas Mayo and Arnold Moses. A renewed interest in early-American architecture had just been stoked by Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Exposition, held in 1926 to mark America’s 150th anniversary. The humble, unfussy style, which borrowed elements from the classical architecture of Greece and Rome, was seen as an expression of America’s core democratic values.
The choice of Colonial Revival also helped to form a bond between the modern parish hall that fronted on the heavily trafficked Rising Sun Avenue and the colonial-era church, which is set back at the quieter end of the property, on Oxford Avenue. Like the church, the building, known as the parish house, has a pointed gable roof, multipaned arched windows, and a columned entrance. But it is significantly larger in scale and engages confidently with the street, making it more of a civic building.
The parish house quickly became a social hub for the Lawndale neighborhood. Even families that didn’t attend Trinity Oxford’s Sunday services sent their kids to the church’s preschool and after-school programs. They attended plays in the auditorium and baseball games on the ball fields next door to the church. Trinity’s parish hall felt more like a community center than a religious building.
So when plans leaked out in 2017 that the church wanted to raze the building and lease its site on Rising Sun Avenue to a Royal Farms gas station, the neighborhood went into shock.
It was the first time the church had attempted to allow a commercial use on its property. There already was a Sunoco station next door and a Wawa across the street. But the congregation, whose numbers had dwindled to less than a hundred, argued that it needed the money to maintain its church building. Their stand was a bit ironic, given that the church had protested the construction of the Sunoco station in 1952.
Alarmed at the prospect of losing the parish house — and another vestige of the Northeast’s rural past — the Preservation Alliance and State Rep. Jared Solomon sprang into action. They succeeded in getting the building listed on the city’s Historic Register. That put an end to the demolition proposal. But it also left Trinity’s handsome community hall empty, making it an easy target for vandals.
Now, the former church building is about to get a second life. With Solomon’s help and a grant from the William Penn Foundation and the Fund for Quality (operated by Reinvestment Fund), Trinity has lined up a well-regarded preschool to take over the hall. Kinder Academy, which operates four other locations in the Northeast, is renovating the interior, maintaining many of its original details. It expects to open its Lawndale campus by early spring, with a Head Start program and city-funded pre-K slots. Solomon says he is also working with the Police Athletic League to build an indoor basketball court on land behind the hall.
Trinity couldn’t have found a better group of partners. Although it is handing off control of its parish house, the historic building will be used exactly as the congregation intended back in 1928. That’s a happy ending for two important buildings that are vital to the history of Northeast Philadelphia.