Historic Preservation

Posted May 19, 2020
  • 19th Street Baptist Church in 2011

    Photo Credit: Peter Woodall, Hidden City 

  • Street View of 19th Street Baptist Church from 1981

    Photo Credit: Clio Group

  • The Interior of 19th Street Baptist Church

    Photo credit: The Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, University of Pennsylvania

  • Professor Aaron Wunsch

The Preservation Alliance Continues to Celebrate Preservation Month with Aaron Wunsch

In honor of National Preservation Month, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is featuring 31 historic preservation leaders in Philadelphia and the local buildings that have inspired them. The Preservation Alliance recently highlighted Historic Preservation Associate Professor Aaron Wunsch and his choice: 19th Street Baptist Church (1249-53 South 19th Street, Philadelphia). Read Aaron's words on this serpentine wonder and it's relevance to Philadelphia's preservation community below.

My building of choice is 19th Street Baptist Church - a building whose striking design, rich associations, and ability to spawn unlikely coalitions make it a model for the kind of idealistic, motivated, and socially conscious preservation work Philadelphia so desperately needs. The church landed at the corner of 19th and Titan Streets in 1874, an alien green projectile launched by old-line Protestants (St. Peter's in Society Hill) into a burgeoning red-brick neighborhood with working-class roots and foreseeably Catholic inclinations. The short-lived but now-celebrated architectural firm of Furness & Hewitt was responsible for the strange craft's design. It originally wore the name The Memorial Church of the Holy Comforter in honor of its sponsor's mother.

The first congregation left long ago. In their wake came different stewards, voyagers in the Great Migration who brought new life to so many of the city's aging religious structures. Along with a baptismal pool and other physical changes came passionate sermons, a legendary choir, and visiting dignitaries such as a young Jesse Jackson, Sr. Sadly, that era, too, has come to an end. Facing cascading maintenance costs, a gentrification juggernaut, and dwindling parking, 19th Street's Baptists have moved to more hospitable climes. Yet their fondness for their old home persists. Unlike many congregations that have "cashed out" under similar pressures, members of 19th Street Baptist have pulled back from such a plan. They did so in part because of their memories - of weddings and funerals, of songs sung, of children reared - but also because of encouragement and aid given by civic leaders, the preservation community, and enthusiastic graduate students. While the building's fate remains uncertain, the friendships and good will it has fostered are not. If nothing else, we may now dismiss a charge made by a City attorney at a Historical Commission meeting last year: "We all know what's going to happen here." No, we don't. It is precisely that attitude that has mired Philadelphia preservation in a mix of cynicism, cronyism, and resignation for so long. God willing, we may live to see another day.