Three historic religious sites embark on a road to preservation and future service

Forty years ago, Zion Baptist Church was nationally renowned for the community services it provided from its main building on North Broad Street and an educational annex across the road. Under its energetic leader, Rev. Leon Sullivan, the church ran a homeless shelter, summer camps, a library, basketball teams, and other programs, as well as multiple Sunday services to accommodate its 6,000 members.

Zion Baptist continues to thrive as a church, but it has far fewer congregants and resources than it once did. The 1920s annex building, whose stained-glass windows and stone tower dominate the corner of Broad and Venango streets, sits vacant and dilapidated.That could be a troubling sign, given that a number of historic religious buildings in Philadelphia have been sold off or demolished in recent years. However, Zion learned this week that the annex has been selected for a grant-funded design project that aims to show how sacred spaces can be saved and repurposed as community hubs. 

“The church and that building arguably saved my life. I’m from the neighborhood, and neither of my parents went to high school. But through the programs and ministries of the church, I made it,” said Michael Major, an associate minister at Zion Baptist and founder of the Called To Serve community-development corporation. “The whole idea, really, is to replicate for others what happened for me.” 

Community Design Collaborative, a nonprofit urban-design organization in Center City, announced Tuesday that the Zion Baptist annex, along with the Philadelphia Masjid in Mill Creek and Wharton-Wesley United Methodist Church in Cobbs Creek, have been chosen for the initiative from among 15 applicants. Each will work closely with a community organization and a design firm on a six-month design challenge that aims to come up with innovative ideas to redevelop and sustainably use the building in ways that strengthens its neighborhood. 

In addition to helping create new futures for the three sites, the Sacred Places/Civic Spaces project is meant to lay out a process for preservation and community use of other historic religious buildings, the organizers said.  

“This is a groundbreaking project, not just for Philadelphia but for the whole nation,” said Robert Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit and a lead partner in the initiative. “We’re creating models here that I think will inspire and support and educate and be a guide to sacred places all around the region and all around the country.” 

Churches and community-development organizations have been coming to the Community Design Collaborative for years asking for help with preservation of their historic sites, and the nonprofit wanted to set up a formal project with Partners for Sacred Places, said the collaborative’s executive director, Beth Miller. Last fall, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report that catalogued the city’s historic religious buildings and described threats to their survival, galvanizing the effort. The William Penn Foundation subsequently provided a grant to create the Sacred Places/Civic Spaces initiative. (The foundation also provides grant support to WHYY.)

Philadelphia still has more than 800 historic sacred places, according to the Pew report, but the survey found that 23 had been demolished between 2011 and 2015 and that 39 were vacant as of last year.  

A number of historic churches are neglected and face sale or demolition. Recently, a developer announced plans to raze the 126-year-old Christian Street Baptist Church after it failed to win historic designation, and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia plans to sell the former St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church, the city’s first black Catholic church. The owner of Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church, a large 19th-century Gothic Revival complex in Spruce Hill, secured a demolition permit in April.  

But the Philadelphia region also is home to a number of sites that were successfully preserved and reused in recent years. Several are highlighted in an exhibit at the Center for Architecture and Design on Arch Street, where a launch party for Sacred Places/Civic Spaces took place Tuesday. They include the revitalized Arch Street Presbyterian Church, Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad, and Christ Church’s Neighborhood House. Work is under way on Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, and planning for the future of Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church and Metropolitan Baptist Church is in the early stages, according to the exhibit. 

Studio 6mm, the design firm paired with Zion Baptist Church, has worked on a number of local church projects, architect Brian Szymanik said. When he designs religious spaces, Szymanik tries to keep in mind that they should be comfortable for a variety of uses, ranging from one congregant meeting with a clergy member to a large number of people engaged in a group activity, he said.

“Looking at neighborhoods that need some love, through a lens like that, really helps us start to think about the project and the problems and opportunities it presents, with community being a central theme,” he said Tuesday, moments after learning he would work on the Zion Baptist project. 

“Philadelphia’s preservation community really needs help right now,” said Kate Cowing, an architect and historic-preservation consultant on the project. “There are so many old buildings, and they’re getting torn down left and right. I just want to be part of helping one. And the idea of turning it into something that then can embrace the community — it’s just fantastic.” 

The design firms are working for free, but the organizers are seeking $30,000 in donations to cover expenses for the three projects. 

Major and other Zion congregants said they already have ideas for ways to use the old annex once it’s fixed up. He said the church supports a local elementary school’s aquaponics program, in which fish and vegetables are grown in tanks of water, and he’d like to see that expanded and moved into the building. It could provide fresh food in a neighborhood that lacks many grocery options, while employing residents and teaching marketable skills to young people, he said. 

“In low-income communities, the churches themselves need economic streams to be sustainable and to continue their services,” Major said. “Hopefully, the annex also becomes a place that can generate revenue to support the ministries of the church as well, like our homeless-shelter program, like our basketball program. It serves the community, but at the same time it’s sustainable in the building itself.” 

Congregant Charles Tolliferreo, a dental student who grew up in the church and coaches the basketball team, said he’d like to see a return to the days when Boy and Girl Scouts hung out in the basement every day after school, playing video games and socializing. The room currently looks like it hasn’t been redecorated since the 1950s, he said. 

“To bring people’s eyes back to that place, the annex needs to be updated, and for safety reasons also,” he said. “Sometimes, the home that your child grows up in in the neighborhood is not the best place. It’s not actually a sanctuary. But this place actually gives someone a chance to have a sanctuary.” 

One of the newly announced projects will assist the Philadelphia Masjid, a Muslim congregation on Wyalusing Avenue with 500 members. The mosque is sited on a 1.5-acre former Catholic school complex that as been “underutilized” since the Sister Clara Muhammad School closed more than 10 years ago, according to a summary by the Community Design Collaborative. The design partner is HOK, an international firm with an office in Logan Square, and the community partner is People’s Emergency Center. 

“The site offers the potential for both renovation and new construction, and the congregation hopes to use its excess space to meet the needs of the neighborhood and lay the foundation for a broad community-development initiative,” the summary says. “The Philadelphia Masjid envisions the use of the classroom building for workforce training programs and sees the potential for redevelopment of the vacant schoolyard as affordable, multi-generational housing.” 

The former school has already undergone some renovation, according to the Philadelphia Masjid website. The cost for that part of the project is estimated at $300,000. 

The Wharton-Wesley United Methodist Church project includes community partner ACHIEVEability, which works to help low-income families become self-sufficient, and the Brawer & Hauptman design firm. Wharton-Wesley once had 700 congregants and now has 150, most of whom live outside the neighborhood, according to the Community Design Collaborative. The church also struggles with high utility costs and aging infrastructure. 

“The congregation is attuned to the challenges faced by the surrounding community and is eager to put ‘less into capital, more into ministry,’ ” the summary says. “Having just completed a strategic planning process, it is positioned to maximize the value of its building as a community resource through partnerships with social service and education providers, and opportunities for space sharing with other congregations.” 

The congregations, design teams, and community groups will meet over the next few months to create development concepts.They will present them before an expert jury and public audience on Dec. 4. A publication and exhibition of their work is set for March 2019. The congregations will receive renderings, program designs, and cost estimates, which they can use to solicit foundations and other potential funders to help pay for the proposed improvements, Major said. 


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