The southeast corner of 21st & Cecil B. Moore Ave. has been home to a church since almost 50 years before Cecil B. Moore himself was even born. In 1870, the McDowell Presbyterian Sunday School Association built a chapel on the southern end of the property, with frontage on Nicholas Street. Six years later, as the country was celebrating its Centennial, the chapel was expanded to the east. In 1893, a much larger building was constructed on the north side of the property, completing the complex for the McDowell Memorial Presbyterian Church.

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View in the late 1800s
Current view
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Southern view, just a few years ago

The building was added to the National Historic Register in 2013 “for its embodiment of the distinctive characteristics of exterior materials, massing, plan, and physical relationship to the street typical of Philadelphia churches of its period; and as a notable example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style, a national design idiom.” Remarkably, the exterior of the northern building looks almost identical to the way it looked in the late 1800s, even as almost every surrounding building has fallen into disrepair and been demolished during that time. The interior has also held up surprisingly well, with stained glass windows, pews, and the elaborate wood carved ceiling all seemingly in good condition despite their age.

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A look inside, from an old listing

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the oldest section of the property. While the addition from 1876 looks to be intact, the 1870 chapel appears to have collapsed at some point in the last several months.

Current view from the south
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Closer look

As for what’s next for this property, there are several dynamics currently at play. The Macedonia Free Will Baptist Church has occupied this building for many years, but developers purchased the church in late 2018, paying $650K for the 14K sqft parcel. Maybe the plan was adaptive reuse, but we have to think that the idea was to demolish the building in favor of student housing, given the proximity to Temple and the by-right multi-family zoning. In early 2019, however, the church was nominated to the local Historic Register, which means that any construction, be it demolition or renovation, would require approval from the Historical Commission. This would surely preclude tearing down the newest section of the church, and would also complicate any plans for the southern section as well. So we don’t know what to expect here, but it certainly bears watching in the coming months (and probably years).

If you’d like more information on this building, its history, and its architecture, check out the National Historic nomination or the local nomination, both of which are chock full of historical details and photos.