Historic South Philly church finds salvation in group effort

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

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

Over the last few years, Philadelphia has demolished about one historic church per month. A South Philly church designed by a famous architect seemed destined for that fate until its congregation found some creative ways to hold on.

In 2011, Philadelphia’s 19th Street Baptist Church in Point Breeze was on the brink of demolition. Designed by famed architect Frank Furness and constructed in 1874, chunks of the building’s green serpentine stone facade were crumbling to the street. The roof was caving in. And the city declared it unsafe.

Deacon Lloyd Butler, the church’s resident carpenter, said things are in much better shape now.

“We’ve secured the flooring inside on both sides, and we’ve added the new roof on the tower,” he said.

The congregation still can’t use the main sanctuary, but the building stands. So what happened? In a city that tears down one old church each month, how did 19th Street escape the wrecking ball?

Butler said he got a lot of help from Aaron Wunsch, a professor of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Our first goal,” said Wunsch, “was to get the side one roofs sealed up, and we began thinking about how we would do that using the skills that we had.”

Wunsch got involved with the 19th street church in 2011 after seeing an article about another Furness church that desperately needed help. Wunsch, Butler and a few other church members came up with a bare bones solution to fix the roof.

That plan involved “lumber from Lowe’s — or maybe it was Home Depot — and corrugated metal, which doesn’t fit with anyone’s ideas about what goes on a historic church, but keeps the weather out for a long time,” Wunsch said.

They received a $1,500 emergency stabilization grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but did all the work themselves.

“Fifteen hundred bucks sounds like a tip to anyone who does large-scale building projects,” said Wunsch. “But I’ll tell you, with that check in hand, our trip to Home Depot went a lot better than it would without it.”

They successfully shored up this section of the roof and then applied this scrappy, but functional approach to other parts of the church — the floors of the sanctuary and even the foundation.

Wunsch was delighted at “being able to say, ‘Hey, look, a guy from Penn who does this stuff as architecture history and has a good set of tools plus a carpenter and an electrician who have a shared goal of trying to keep this thing standing can actually do it as a threesome.'” 

Former pastor comes home to help

But they still needed to raise a lot of money to fix a steep section of the sanctuary’s roof. That’s where Pastor Wilbur Winborne came in. Winborne, who grew up worshipping at 19th Street, had moved away years ago to be a pastor in Woodbury, New Jersey.

“I just felt called to come back,” said Winborne, “I didn’t want the church to close.”

Winborne’s return to 19th Street last year not only brought new leadership to the church, but also new congregants. He’s on the church’s building preservation committee.

That renewed sense of identity Winborne brought to the church paid off fast, Wunsch said.

“He convinced the congregation to pay for what ended up being almost $50,000 worth of roof work just on one side of the church,” said Wunsch, “So now, though I hesitate to say it, the building is dry. I’m sure it still has a few little leaks here and there, but that sense of being on board a sinking ship has gone away.”

While some old churches in the area have similar survival stories, few have the same architectural pedigree. The church has attracted help from the University of Pennsylvania and the nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places. But Wunsch said the work they’ve done to stay alive has cost far less than the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would have taken to demolish the church.

“That’s an important takeaway from this,” said Wunsch, “that we’re lacking this kind of middle strategy for fixing things and then, in lieu of that at least for the time being, I think it is volunteer projects like this that have the most promise for standing in.”

Not only is the building still standing, but the culture of the building is preserved. And that could be lost easily in a fast-changing neighborhood such as Point Breeze, Winbourne said.

“A lot of history is there,” he said. “A lot of great preachers have come through, a lot of families have been blessed. It’s a historic building — historic as far as architecture — but it’s also historic in the lives of the people.”

Congregants such as Butler who have worshipped at 19th Street for decades are dreaming of the day the church is fully restored.

“We all talk about that day, that day that we can formulate a line outside and walk in to the main sanctuary,” he said.

The 19th Street Baptist is going to need several million dollars for that. But now, the congregation has time and it has hope.

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