Almost exactly four years ago, we brought the Saint James Pentecostal Church at 4101 Ludlow St. to your attention, speculating that it was perhaps the reddest church ever. We described the history of the edifice, noting that it was originally built in 1846 as the home to the Monumental Baptist Church, which was one of the first African American churches in Philadelphia and the first African American congregation with a church bell, starting in 1853. The building was changed considerably in the 1870s- but that’s still a really long time ago! Despite being really old and retaining numerous architectural features, the building wasn’t listed on the historic register back in 2016.

This was especially relevant because the property was listed for sale at that time, and we has a pretty good sense that any buyer would seek to demolish the old church in favor of new multi-family development. After all, the 5,500 sqft parcel would lend itself well to a by-right 25K+ sqft apartment building, and that was clearly the thinking behind the $1.6M asking price. We wondered though, whether the building being listed for sale would bring it to the attention of preservationists, who would then nominate it to the Historic Register. And wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly what happened. Suffice to say, had the building not been designated historic, this wouldn’t be the sight today at 41st & Ludlow.

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Current view
Viewed from Market Street

Okay, so apartments are out of the question. Aside from another house of worship, what could you do with this building? It took a couple years, but the folks at Reach Climbing and Fitness have an idea. As the name of their company suggests, Reach currently operates a rock gym (in Bridgeport) but they’d like to open a new location at 41st & Ludlow. Because the building is designated historic, the plan needed to go before the Historical Commission. The submission to the HC provides us with some major insight into what they’re looking to do, including a small glass addition at the corner.

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Rendering of the existing building and the little addition
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First floor plan

The design, from L2Partridge, fully guts the building and will fill it with all manner of rock wall upon which people will someday climb. The first floor and mezzanine will be almost exclusively for climbing, while the basement will have a number of other functions. Those will include bathrooms, a yoga room, a room for birthday parties, and maybe a wet room too. Given its location, maybe a keg room would make sense? Their insurance company might not be thrilled with the idea.

You may recall, the asking price for the property was $1.6M before it got added to the historic register. After designation, the building ultimately sold for $825K. We’re not saying that the congregation selling the building would have gotten $1.6M had it not been designated, but we can say with full confidence that they would have gotten way more than they ended up with. And that’s really unfortunate.

Don’t get us wrong- we’re much happier to see this church remain here than see it torn down and replaced by a boring student housing building. Buildings like this add to the richness of our urban environment and we’re a better city for having them. But it’s still incredibly unfair that this congregation owned this property for decades and lost the ability to sell it for top dollar at the 11th hour because of historic designation. Not that Philadelphia has the budget for this, but we’d support tax credits or outright payments to property owners in similar situations, so that the burden of preservation is borne by the taxpayers and not churches and other longtime property owners. Hey, we know it’s a pipe dream- but surely we can come up with a more equitable solution than the status quo.