Weccacoe Playground renovations aim to leave Mother Bethel’s burial ground undisturbed

The fireworks that characterized previous conversations about the renovations to Queen Village’s Weccacoe Playground were notably absent during a Historical Commission committee’s review of the project. 

The project has been delayed for years because of a discovery that Weccacoe Playground, which sits on the 400 block of Queen and Catharine streets, was built above the historic burial ground for nearby Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The site contains the remains of founding generations of the AME church, established just a few blocks north by Bishop Richard Allen and which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year.

A few years ago Queen Village neighbors had developed renovation plans for the old playground with the city. But before shovels could hit the ground, independent historian Terry Buckalew raised the concern that the park was likely built on top of the historic remains of early black Philadelphians.

Archaeological explorations in 2013 confirmed Buckalew’s research and identified the existence and bounds of the old burial ground. It sits below roughly the southwestern third of the playground, under a recreation building and part of a tennis court. The east and north walls of the burial ground were located during the archaeological investigations, providing a helpful boundary into the park site.

The burial ground site was listed in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2013 and this year joins the National Register of Historic Places. The local designation slowed the planned playground project and forced two years of conversation about compromise. Recent years have been marked by the mutual desire to sensitively treat the archaeological remains, from human to headstone, while making room for the site’s nearly 100-year use as a city park.

Starting this year the city intends to renovate the playground except for the area above the historic burial ground. That zone will be fenced off during construction and work will be monitored by an archaeologist.

Because the project abuts the historically designated portion of the site, the Historical Commission’s jurisdiction is limited to review and comment. In a brief hearing Tuesday the Architectural Committee praised the Department of Parks and Recreation for its sensitivity to the historic resource and supported the renovations, because the historic resource will be “protected and preserved in place.” No advocates or neighbors came to the meeting to offer public comment.

Though the playground will be renovated, there is no set plan for the future of the aged community building that sits squarely on top of the burial ground, according to Nancy O’Donnell, who manages capital projects at Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. The building is leased to the Queen Village Neighbors Association, but it is deteriorating. As the Inquirer reported earlier this month, some preservation advocates are calling for the building’s removal in order to better honor the burial ground site, while others fear that the building’s structural cracks are due to the ground sinking below due to graves collapsing. For now it remains.

Stephanie Craighead, director of planning at Parks & Recreation, said the city is also committed to creating a memorial of some kind to honor the burial ground site. That discussion, she said, is expected to begin this year but is not part of the playground renovation project.

Weccacoe’s renovations are expected to begin this spring. Plans include new play equipment, furniture, a sprayground, and a rain garden at the northeast corner of the site.

When the full Historical Commission meets on March 11, it will also have an opportunity to review and comment.

Weccacoe Playground site plan showing extent of historic burial ground.
(Parks & Recreation)

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