City denies demolition for Frank Furness’ Point Breeze church

The Philadelphia Historical Commission denied a permit for demolition of 19th Street Baptist Church on Friday, eight months after it was initially filed.

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

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

The Philadelphia Historical Commission denied a permit for demolition of 19th Street Baptist Church on Friday, eight months after it was initially filed.  

The striking serpentine stone-clad building designed by Frank Furness’s architectural firm is an icon in Point Breeze, a neighborhood undergoing rapid redevelopment. But the church is in a dire state of disrepair and needs capital investments. 

The 1874 building is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which protects structures from demolition unless the owner can make an argument that it is too far gone and expensive to be repaired. Although rare, these “financial hardship” cases can often be won. But neither 19th Street Baptist or the developer the church entered an agreement of sale or filed to make such a case before the commission, so the permit was denied.  

The commission’s ruling comes in the context of a lawsuit filed by the church against the developer they have an agreement of sale with, Abraham Nechemia of Alinea Capital Group.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“We are getting out of the agreement of sale because, as was confirmed today at the Historic Commission, the demolition of the church is not going to be approved,” said Conor Corcoran, who is representing the church. “The second reason is because Nechemia and the company did not disclose to us that Ori Feibush was a partner in the project and we do not want to do business with Ori Feibush.” 

Nechemia did not respond to requests for comment to his cell phone or office. 

Feibush, who has developed hundreds of properties in Point Breeze, said he was no longer involved in the project.

“It is accurate that I was involved, I had an agreement of sale a long time ago,” Feibush said. “But that was almost a year ago. It’s not recent history.” 

Feibush said he entered into an agreement of sale for $1.3 million in November 2018, although he never communicated with the church directly. The transaction was contingent upon the seller securing an “unappeasable demolition permit.”

The real estate developer said that if the church wants top dollar for the property, they would need to sell it with a demolition permit in hand. To save the building, the cost of sale would have to be far lower than what he had been willing to pay before pulling out. 

The church’s serpentine stone is a striking green color — notably College Hall on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus is also built of it — but is also notoriously expensive to maintain. The 145-year-old building is in poor condition, and is hemmed in by protective fencing to keep the public away.

Leonard Reuter of the city’s Law Department urged the commission to rule on the demolition request one way or the other, as opposed to tabling the motion and allowing it to sit in limbo. 

“The property continues to deteriorate at a rapid pace due to the nature of serpentine stone,” Reuter said. The Department of Licensees and Inspections (L&I) “is very, very concerned about the continued viability of the structure. There is a danger of collapse in some portions of this property. It is only a matter of time before the city itself needs to go in and take action.”

Reuter said that L&I considers 19th Street Baptist Church to be unstable, but not imminently dangerous.  

“We are probably stretching the boundaries of what we should be doing but we are trying to put them in contact with other people,” Reuter said. “But they have a purchase agreement and legal problem right now.”

Although the Historical Commission denied the demolition permit Friday, the owners could, in theory, apply for another such permit in the future. 

But for now, the church will be tied up in court. They filed a case in August to exit the agreement of sale and there is no court date set. 

“We were very happy to do business with Nechemia, but the commission would not issue the permit,” Corcoran said. “But over the course of that process, we heard he’d been joined in the project by Ori Feibush. And because of Ori’s history in the neighborhood and the way he’s facilitated, in my opinion, the ferocious gentrification of the neighborhood, we don’t want to do business with him.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal