Demolition of old churches has been a rather common theme during Philadelphia’s unprecedented wave of redevelopment over the last twenty years or so. The mechanics of this make all the sense in the world. As neighborhoods change, the congregations that counted near neighbors as regular worshipers see their membership dwindle or they become commuter churches with huge parking needs. The actual churches are huge and old and incredibly costly to maintain, and as membership goes down and funds dry up, deferred maintenance becomes a real issue. Developers see large parcels, perfect for multi-family development but rarely found in desirable areas, so they offer incredibly high prices for the old churches, generally with plans for demolition. Wash, rinse, repeat.
But this isn’t always the case! Just last week, we covered a synagogue turned church on the edge of South Kensington which is getting converted into apartments. Surely, if the building wasn’t listed on the historic register, it would be demoed by now, but given that the building was listed on the Historic Register back in 1986, it’s reasonable to expect that it wasn’t going anywhere. Today we can share some good news about another historic house of worship, the True Gospel Tabernacle Family Church. This church, located at 1900 S. 16th St., was originally constructed around 1889, and was designed by Baily & Truscott for Saint Elizabeth’s (or Elisabeth’s) Episcopal Church. We found some scans of church programs from the early 20th century, but we weren’t able to learn much else about the history of the church, aside from the fact that the current congregation moved into the building in the late 1990s.
We don’t know this for sure, but we suspect that the True Gospel church is experiencing something like what we detailed above and are either folding and moving to a new location. We say this because we noticed that last week, permits were pulled to convert the building (really, the collection of buildings) into 45 apartments. Some of the existing structure looks like it will seamlessly convert to residential, while the chapel will likely pick up a new interior floor or two, to accomplish the density indicated by the permit. Like the property at 7th & Cecil B. Moore, the building at 16th & Mifflin is on the local historic registry, having been added in 1967. This being the case, there will likely be very few changes made to the facade and any changes will need approval by the Historical Commission.
We’ll be delighted to see this property converted into apartments and not torn down, as this adaptive reuse will preserve the history of the site while maintaining some terrific architectural diversity. We can’t speak to what’s happening inside the building in terms of preserved interior details, but we’re hopeful that some of those will remain, to provide the units with some unique looks as well. In all, this looks like it will be success story in terms of historic preservation and a testament to the power of the local historic register. Like we’ve been shouting for years, let’s get more funding to the Historical Commission and get more buildings on that register!