False demolition fears at 19th Street Baptist Church

As word circulated Monday that a demolition notice was posted on the door of 19th Street Baptist Church, hearts sank among its faithful and preservationists concerned with the church’s fate.

The building, designed by the firm Furness & Hewitt, has stood in Point Breeze for 142 years at the corner of 19th and Titan streets. Though time, weather, and deferred maintenance seemed to have gotten the best of the church, its recent past has been one of small victories. 

Members of the congregation and a dedicated crew of volunteers, professionals, and academics have been making slow and steady progress to stabilize the historic church and plan for its future since it was cited by the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) in 2011 for collapsing wall and roof conditions.

Given these positive developments, the notice shocked those concerned with the building’s future.

This demolition notice was placed on 19th Street Baptist Church's door in error.
This demolition notice was placed on 19th Street Baptist Church’s door in error.

“We were completely surprised,” Rev. Winborne said, noting he’d been at the church over the weekend and seen nothing posted. “I was confident that something was wrong. We hadn’t seen any paperwork.”

He mobilized, even though the demolition notice posted didn’t list the church’s address but a portion of the shuttered Walter G. Smith School, a block down and across the street. Better to be safe than demolished.

He sent word to former mayor, Rev. W. Wilson Goode and called PennDesign preservation professor Aaron Wunsch, both fervent allies and volunteers for the cause of keeping 19th Street Baptist Church standing. He asked Councilman Kenyatta Johnson if he’d heard anything. He called for prayers.

It turns out, the demolition notice was posted on the wrong building, L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss confirmed.

“An L&I inspector spoke to the owner of 1249 S 19th this morning about the error and went to the address to remove the demo notice.  The Department apologizes for the mistake and for the dismay it appears to have caused,” she said over email. 

Rev. Winborne said he didn’t personally hear from the city but was so relieved to learn the notice was mistakenly posted there. And he stressed that the church hasn’t heard from L&I of late. City records show the church is still listed as in “unsafe” condition and the 2011 violations are still open as of an inspector’s visit in February 2016.

Back in 2011, L&I posted an order to repair or demolish the building to clear the violations, based on the holes in the sanctuary roof and failing serpentine stone cladding. But providence broke the church’s way: The Board of L&I Review granted more time. A small grant covered some supplies, and a combination of donated, volunteer, and student labor has helped take care of stabilizing the most precarious spots to buy the building time. Holes have been covered, severe leaks have been plugged, loose stone has been removed, and plans are in the works for fundraising and addressing yet more repairs.

“We have done a lot of work… we still have a ways to go, mind you,” Rev. Winborne said. Still he is optimistic and planning for the next steps: mockups for masonry restoration courtesy of PennDesign preservation professor Frank Matero and a fundraising strategy.

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