A recent decision made by the Philadelphia Historical Commission on January 8th of this year, reminded me of the many little churches and chapels that are scattered around Philadelphia.
The proposed designation to the Register of Historic Places for the Church of St. Agnes-St. John at 4th and Brown Streets in the Northern Liberties was brought before the Commission, but unfortunately failed to be approved. The reasoning of the Historic Commission’s staff, influencing the commissioners themselves, was that the building was not completed as originally designed, and to their minds could not be put to any future use if the parishioners were to close the church.
It is true that the parish could not ultimately afford to build the grand-spired church designed by Louis H. Gisele, architect of St. Adalberts Polish church in Port Richmond, and instead settled for a much humbler chapel-like structure apparently built on the foundation of the church the congregation had hoped to build. The Commission’s decision was very disappointing since the church as built has immense charm, and its toy-like scale would lend itself well to a pre-school facility, or even a single family residence, if ever the parish were to be closed by the Archdiocese, always a possibility. Without designation, the church then might be demolished and replaced with a multi-unit apartment/condo of the type that is plentiful in Northern Liberties.
The consideration of St. Agnes’ designation led me to look across the city for other small, low-profile churches. Keeping my eyes open as I drove through Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, I found quite a few such diminutive religious structures. For the interest and delight of my readers, I am presenting here a portfolio of the little churches I discovered:
Church of St. Agnes–St. John, Northern Liberties Neighborhood
This Catholic Church serving the Slovakian community unfortunately was not designated and placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places by the Historical Commission on its monthly hearing on January 8th. The charming structure is for that reason not protected from demolition.
Two Small Churches on Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia
These churches with active congregations are located not far apart in a working-class African-American district. Though diminutive in scale, their architecture embodies a sufficient robustness lending them a presence on the avenue.
Two Little Churches in South Philadelphia
On the left is the Gothic Revival style Emmanuel Chapel, a Presbyterian church in the Passyunk Square Neighborhood. On the right is the unusual, stylistically unidentifiable African-American New Gethsemane Baptist Church on South 23rd Street in the Wharton Square neighborhood.
Church on Pine Street in Center City
Straddling the street, the former Christian Science church was designed in 1874 by James Peacock Sims (1874-77) in the Gothic Revival style. Frank Furness, later in 1892, designed the entry porch, in his characteristic style. It should be noted that due to lack funds, only a portion of the church, as originally designed, was built. The church was recently sold and converted to an elegant single-family residence. The structure is protected from demolition by virtue of being located in the Rittenhouse-Fitler Historic District.
Church on 44th Street in West Philadelphia
The Good Shepard Community Church, was designed by architect, Norman Hulme (1887-1964) in the late 1930s in the Georgian Revival style. Recently the congregation sold the church to a developer who is converting it to a multi-family residence. His plans unfortunately involve an addition and demolition of significant parts of the structure which to a great extent will render it unrecognizable as a place of worship.
The Manor Sunday School Association, East Falls
Here is a most happy story: the Manor Sunday School Association Chapel, in the East Falls neighborhood, was successfully nominated in 2020 by the team of Steven Peitzman and Nancy Pantone, “Peitzman and Pantone,” and placed on the
Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, thus protecting it from possible demolition. The charming Arts and Crafts style structure was designed circa 1916 by architect Lawrence Visscher Boyd (1873-1941.) The church was recently purchased by a developer and converted to a fine single-family residence.
Ideally, all such small church throughout the city will never be demolished and remain as houses of worship or be converted to some appropriate alternate use. Set down as they are amidst row house neighborhoods, these churches, with their home-like feel, welcome visits for unplanned religious experiences, or just warm community gatherings, without the formalities of approaching an august, soaring monument, treading up the many steps to the sanctuary. The kindness these churches offer is most appreciated by the elderly and handicapped. In all these ways, they have immense value as miniature houses of prayer weaving into the texture and fitting the scale of our typical Philadelphia residential districts.
David S. Traub, AIA Emeritus
2005 Cambridge Street
Philadelphia, PA 19130
February 15, 2021