Once again, a historic Philadelphia house of worship is suddenly up for sale as the city’s ever-changing landscape continues to evolve. This time, however, the church is seeking a buyer who will preserve its history and not simply demolish or sell the property for redevelopment.
“Recognizing that [19th Street Baptist’s] emphasis on restoring the building has at times distracted from its core mission and that the fate of the building it has occupied since 1944 is central to its legacy,” church leaders said in a statement through Partners for Sacred Places.
“19th Street Baptist plans to relocate by Dec. 31 of this year and is seeking a preservation-sensitive buyer that will keep the serpentine clad landmark standing for generations to come,” they said.
Church leaders have spent the last six years staving off demolition and decay of the building, which has been home to the congregation since World War II.
“We want to sell the building to save the church,” said the Rev. Wilbur Winborne, who has been the lead pastor since 2014 and grew up attending 19th Street Baptist.
In the last decade, more than 30 historic houses of worship have either been torn down, left vacant or been turned into residential properties.
The historic First African Baptist Church at 1600 Christian St. was sold in December 2015 for $1 million, according to the city’s Office of Property Assessment.
The building, which was built in 1906 and was headed for demolition, was bought by the New York-based MLK Real Estate, whose website describes the business as a “privately held, boutique commercial real estate banking and advisory firm.”
The church and its congregation relocated to 6700 Lansdowne Ave. last year while the new owner laid out plans to turn the former South Philadelphia location into a day care and residential space.
That is a fate that 19th Street Baptist is looking to avoid.
“Keep the structure,” Winborne said. “It can be used for community events, outreach, and it can even be used as worship space. You could have day care or a preschool. There are so many options because it’s such a big space.”
The building was designed by prolific Philadelphia architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt and constructed in 1874 as Memorial Church of the Holy Comforter for the Episcopal denomination. The 19th Street Baptist Church congregation moved into the building in 1944.
The building is one of the last remaining Furness-designed churches in the city. It is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
Nearly 150 years of changing weather have added to the wear and tear on the Victorian structure, Winborne said.
The walls started to collapse and some of the building’s serpentine stone began to fall from the roof in 2011. The church was cited by the Philadelphia Department of License & Inspections, and set for demolition or repair.
After the city gave the church some more time, a grant covered some supplies, and a combination of donations and volunteer labor helped to stabilize the church. However, the overall cost of the constant upkeep has become a bear to deal with.
“The church has invested at least $500,000 [in repairs] since 2010,” Winborne said. “It would be easy to just tear it down.”
Winborne said the latest estimate for the cost of repairing the walls was about $300,000. “That’s an expense we cannot afford.”
While Winborne says people are not in any imminent danger by being in the building, he feels that safety issues dictate that it is time to move on.
“We can get a hotel or partner with a neighboring church,” he said. “Our main job is to be safe.”
Winborne says the plan is to relocate by the start of the new year to a structure that can be used all week long, not just for Sunday services.
“We want to think outside of the box, but at the same time keep the ministry of the core message of the Gospel intact,” he added. “People will say this is a lot, but I say this is a great opportunity to grow. That’s how I look at it.”