Since late summer, there has been intense speculation that Philadelphia may lose a church by Frank Furness at the corner of 19th and Titan streets in Point Breeze. But the church community and preservationists are doing their best to raise money to strategize temporary stabilization measures for the church before it is truly too late.
"The effort is depending on donations and on volunteers," said Melissa Jest, Neighborhood Preservation Program Coordinator for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.
Builders, architects, conservators, engineers, and academics in the preservation community have been generous with time, advice and donated services with an eye toward the buidling's long-term preservation. In order for that to happen, however, the church needs some immediate work to prevent further loss and damage.
The hope is to combine volunteer labor with low-cost repairs to close up holes in the building to better protect it from the elements, so its odds of surviving winter are better. Of particular concern are the large holes in the side aisle roofs which need to be closed up before water damages the building's framing , and therefore destabilizes the structure, too severely.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has come through with a $1,500 emergency grant to help fund immediate repairs to 19th Street Baptist church. But the supplies for the most pressing repairs would cost closer to $3,000.
The Department of Licenses and Inspection (L&I) declared the building “unsafe” in early August, and after stucco fell off during the earthquake in August L&I became concerned with public safety. The church was fenced, which assuaged L&I's public safety concerns for the moment. If the congregation is unable to move a stabilization plan forward, the city could perform repairs or simply raze the church and hand the congregation the bill. L&I has, however, issued a stay of execution for the church, and has shown a willingness to let the congregation and preservation experts work to secure the building.
Jest said that initial inspections revealed that "the building has good bones," in particular the interior masonry walls (behind the green serpentine cladding) are structurally sound. Still, implementing even the temporary, emergency repairs will be challenging given the extent of rotten wood present around the holes as well as the tight budget and timeframe.
Very few Furness churches remain in Philadelphia, despite the architect’s productivity locally, and the 19th Street Baptist Church’s soft green serpentine cladding makes it all the more rare. It is one of Furness’s three surviving High Victorian churches in the city; the others are including St. Peter’s in Germantown and the former Church of the Holy Apostles in Southwest Center City. Furness scholar Michael Lewis wrote, “The Nineteenth Street Baptist is the last of this trio to be built, and by far the mature and original work.” Furness & Hewitt designed the church, originally known as the Memorial Church of the Holy Comforter, in the mid-1870s, as a satellite of St. Peter’s Church in Society Hill.
The congregation has not worshipped in its sanctuary for years due to the building's deteriorated condition, instead holding services in the sunday school building next door. They hope to restore the building fully, someday, but such an ambitious undertaking requires immediate interventions so that the building does not fall deeper into decline.