Churches Squabble as Furness Falls


The crumbling facade of the Furness designed 19th Street Baptist Church. (Courtesy of Naked Philly)

The titan of Titan Street is mighty no longer. On the corner of Titan and 19th streets in South Philadelphia, a robust Frank Furness-designed church has been crumbling for some time, but now the Department of Licensing and Inspections has threatened to tear the building down and send a bill to the owner, the 19th Street Baptist Church. Calls to the church went unanswered—the phone is disconnected. After Naked Philly broke the demolition news on Friday, readers identified the architect as Furness, and preservationists began to rally the troops on Facebook.

The north facing facade along Titan Street.

As diehard Furness fans will know, Lewis Mumford argued that the architect had an influence on both Louis Sullivan, who worked as a draftsman for Furness, and thus Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked under Sullivan. Despite the number of Furness buildings that have been destroyed over the years, his work is still ubiquitous in the city.  And even though some might not know the name, there’s something about the Furness style that speaks to contemporary Philadelphians who may not otherwise care about architecture. “Badass” was the term one blogger used to describe the church.

The stunted arches and squat belfries are part of a complex architecture that provides fodder for endless analyses by Furnessians, sometimes long after the buildings are gone. But on 19th Street, the building still stands. The web debate has already begun to focus on materials, of which green serpentine stone is the most prominent. The expensive, if not terribly stable, stone is revealed in crude patches exposed by falling stucco meant to protect the facade. So what is this swanky little church doing in South Philly?

For that answer, the Philadelphia Daily News did an exposé in 2000 on a lawsuit that the all-black church levied against a cornerstone of WASP establishment, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, as well as the Episcopal Church of Philadelphia and their bank, First Union (now Wachovia).  The short of it is that heiress Margaretta Lewis had Furness build the original St. Peter’s church as a memorial to her parents in 1875; it cost $60,000 and she also established an $80,000 endowment for its upkeep. St. Peter’s sold the building to the Baptists in 1944 for $30,000 and the endowment reverted back to St. Peter’s.  The Baptists say the endowment was intended for their church. Charges of racism and injustice ensued.

Even with the years-long lawsuit lost, last year parishioners of 19th Street Baptist still held protests out on Broad Street in front of Wachovia Bank and at the Episcopal Diocese headquarters. But back on 19th Street, as the lawyers bills mounted, the old church languished.

UPDATE: Maura Kennedy, a spokesperson for L&I, said the that building was cited on August 10.  The 19th Street Baptist has 30 days to fix the structure and then will probably get an additional 30 days on top of that. If repairs are still not done, the case will then go to court at which point the city will step in and the church will foot the bill for any repairs that the city arranges. L&I has three categories: vacant, unsafe, and immanent danger. The have classified this building as unsafe. “It’s not in imminent danger of collapsing,” said Kennedy.

Related Stories