Historic Preservation

Posted December 8, 2017
  • Photo Molly Lester

    Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church, at 432 North 41st Street

The Past, Present, and Future of Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places

A legacy of William Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” which fostered religious freedom in the colony of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s historic sacred places have been centers of city life for centuries. They comprise a priceless and irreplaceable architectural and social legacy, particularly for immigrants and African-Americans. But these places also face serious challenges, including migration and displacement, secularization and aging congregations, and privatization of urban space, according to a new report published by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative (PRI) based on an 18-month research project by PennPraxis, with contributions from Partners for Sacred Places.

The report, entitled Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places, offers critical data, both quantitative and qualitative, to inform decisions and conversations about the future of the city’s older religious properties.“The hope is that this study will serve as a platform for continued monitoring, advocacy, policy, and future research on the geography, condition, and value of Philadelphia’s historic sacred places,” said PennPraxis Managing Director Julie Donofrio.

The news media have increasingly reported the demolition of such places, yet until recently, city officials, preservation advocates, and religious leaders had no data on this trend—or whether it even is a trend. No one in Philadelphia even knew how many historic sacred places actually exist in the city.

With funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ PRI, PennPraxis researchers fanned out through every neighborhood of Philadelphia, surveying every purpose-built church, synagogue, temple, and mosque in the city that is at least 50 years old. (A “purpose-built” historic sacred place refers to a building that was constructed specifically as a worship space; rowhouses and other buildings that have been adapted to use as worship spaces were not included in this study.)

79% of the city’s historic sacred places have no form of historic designation, and only 4% are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The survey took nine months, and identified 839 historic sacred places in Philadelphia—far more than anyone at PennPraxis expected to discover. Surveyors assessed the buildings’ condition, current use, shared-space users, and preservation integrity, and researchers collected contextual data on the architectural history of these sites. The result is the first comprehensive, field-checked inventory of historic sacred places in Philadelphia, a resource that both assesses the current circumstances of the city’s older religious properties and will also provide a baseline to monitor preservation and demolition trends going forward.

Among the project’s findings, 83% of the city’s historic sacred places are still primarily used for religious purposes. An additional 10% of buildings have been adaptively reused as arts centers, single- or multi-family residences, or other uses. Perhaps surprising, in light of the tone of the prevailing news coverage on this topic, for the vast majority of buildings (93% of the inventory), the primary exterior material is in fair or good condition. In other words, these places are not, by and large, public hazards crying out for demolition. That finding makes it all the more glaring that 79% of the city’s historic sacred places have no form of historic designation; only 4% are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and just 8% are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

In addition, PennPraxis collaborated with the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places to better understand the internal vulnerabilities and resiliencies of these places. Researchers conducted in-depth conversations with leaders of 22 congregations that inhabit historic sacred places—a geographic, architectural, religious, and socioeconomic cross-section—to document congregational culture, management, finances, leadership structure and capacity, membership, community impact/services, outreach, history, property, and neighborhood presence.

The study identified a confluence of factors emanating from within congregations (such as the polity and structure of leadership), from external social dynamics (such as changing neighborhood demographics), and from the material and geographic realities of inhabiting historic buildings in a legacy city, that affect vulnerability and resilience.

From PennPraxis, Randall Mason served as Principal Investigator, and Ashley Hahn and Molly Lester were the Project Managers. 

According to the report’s authors, “Philadelphia’s historic sacred spaces have proved to be remarkably resilient over the years: The structures were built to last, and mostly they have.” But, they caution, “As buildings deteriorate and attendance at religious services shrinks, a significant number of congregations will have to determine what to do with their worship homes in the years ahead.”