And now for another edition in our long and continuing series about places Philadelphians have been buried. There are so many of course, but what makes this one interesting is that you could be living on top of it. The south side of Christian Street between 5th and 6th Streets is completely residential today, a fact which conceals its historical fluctuation. For our purposes, the story begins in roughly 1831 when, according to Philly.com, one Francis Brown gifted the land to the Mt. Zion Christian Church for use as a burial ground. G.M. Hopkins’ Philadelphia Atlas shows the Grave Yard circa 1875.
Philly.com reports that in 1896, Mt. Zion turned management of the burial ground over to the Bethany Congregational Church. By all reports, Bethany did a less-than-admirable job of managing said ground. Bethany’s occupancy would be the start of the land’s more sordid sequence of historical events. Philly.com notes that near the start of Bethany’s caretaking duties, authorities discovered the bodies of dead infants in an ash heap in the church basement. Investigations landed one trustee in jail and tracked another trustee to an insane asylum. These events ultimately resulted in the abandonment of the property and its rapid descent into disrepair. Claiming Eminent Domain, the city took ownership of the land in 1915 and converted it to the cheerfully named Sunshine Park two years later. The park is shown here below in a Work Progress Administration Land Use Map from 1942.
The photo here below, taken from the Philadelphia Department of Records, shows the 500 block of Christian Street a few decades later.
The fenced-in area houses the playground. Though we can’t actually see the (probably haunted) tot lot, Philly.com says there was a small building, some recreational equipment and even a swimming pool where the graveyard once was.
We looked for a better picture but had no luck, which is surprising considering the playground endured for 80 years. The city finally sold the land to the Regis Development Corp. in 1996. During its 2003 construction of an 18-unit condominium project, Regis discovered a dozen caskets still taking up space under the old playground. Ultimately, Regis sued the city for removal of the former Mt. Zion residents and constructed the contemporary units seen here below.