19th Street Baptist pulls demolition permit for landmark church

The historic 19th Street Baptist Church designed by Frank Furness may soon be demolished.

The Frank Furness-designed 19th Street Baptist Church (Alex Lewis for WHYY)

The Frank Furness-designed 19th Street Baptist Church (Alex Lewis for WHYY)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

A Philadelphia church designed by celebrated architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt is headed to the afterlife. The 19th Street Baptist Church secured a zoning permit Thursday to demolish its iconic Serpentine-clad house of worship.

The 145-year-old building at 1249 S. 19th St. is in dire condition. Protective fencing surrounds it, to protect passersby from stones that have been known to fall from its facade and roof. The congregation began seeking interested parties to purchase and rehabilitate the building last year, citing financial problems.

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“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.

The effort, evidently, did not succeed. Calls to Rev. Wilbur Winborne and the church’s main number were not immediately returned.

The applicant for the zoning permit, Landmark Architectural Design, is acting on behalf of the church, according to the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections. A representative for the architectural firm did not offer a comment when reached at their offices on Friday afternoon.

The zoning permit secured on Thursday calls for the complete demolition of the church. The permit clears it for use as a vacant lot.

But the firm will also need to apply for a building permit and seek final approval from the city’s Historical Commission before any work can begin.

The building is on the Local Register of Historic Places, which means it cannot be easily demolished.

Instead, the applicant will have to convince the city’s Historical Commission that the building is “imminently dangerous” or presents an insurmountable financial hardship.

Preservationists describe the pending demolition as a tragedy.

Aaron Wunsch, an associate professor for historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Furness’ legacy, has been working with the church for years to find a way to secure the historic building.

“That is tragic,” he said. “It’s a lowest common denominator solution and one that was probably presented to them as necessary by any would-be purchaser of the site.”

The building was designed by Furness and Hewitt and constructed in 1874 as an Episcopal church.  The 19th Street Baptist Church congregation moved into the building in 1944, a time when black families were moving into the Point Breeze area.

The neighborhood is one of the city’s fastest gentrifying, according to researchers. Across South Philadelphia, historic churches are being demolished or redeveloped to make way for new housing.

“They do the dirty work of getting this done before a sale occurred. Because of course it’s much easier to plead hardship as a church and then sell this than it is to plead hardship as a developer and then who bought it like this,” Wunsch said.

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