Thursday, July 11, 2013

Philadelphia's Endangered Church Buildings: The Sad Case of Christ Memorial Church


Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church, 4233 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia
(image@booktown.com)


Philadelphia has an unsurpassed inventory of historic church architecture. From well-preserved relics of America's colonial era in Old City, Queen Village, and Society Hill (Gloria Dei [Old Swedes'] Church, Christ Church, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, "Old Pine" Presbyterian), to John Notman's monumental Roman Catholic Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul on Logan Square, to well-preserved and active 19th century churches in Center City (St. Mark's, Holy Trinity, and St. Clement's Episcopal; First, Tenth, and Arch Street Presbyterian; Arch Street Methodist; Holy Communion Lutheran; First Baptist [I'm cheating on this last one, built as it was in 1900!]), residents and visitors alike can marvel at the beauty and sheer number of ecclesiastical edifices adorning the city's streetscape. Indeed, it was not until I moved to Dallas, Texas in 1979 for graduate study that I came to the realization of Philadelphia's uniqueness in this regard and that I, as I'm sure most other denizens of the city, was foolish for having taken this treasure trove for granted. [For those interested in delving more deeply into Philadelphia's churches, see the splendid Philadelphia Church Project.]

The reason for the city's wealth of historic churches is not hard to discern. It is old and it is large. But America's transition from an industrial to a post-industrial, service- and technology-based economy has had catastrophic effects on all the old industrial powerhouses, including the venerable City of Brotherly Love. Scores of the old working class neighborhoods retained (many of) their residents even as all the mills and factories that sustained them were shuttered in the post-war era. The effect this had on the grand neo-Gothic churches that dotted these neighborhoods has been devastating. The "flight" of many to the suburbs and migration of others out of the area entirely, when combined with the general societal shift to a post-Christian culture, have left dozens of these fine old structures without congregations to tend after them. Many more are home to diminishing numbers of congregants without the means to keep up their properties. As a result, many have met the wrecking ball. One thinks here of the loss of such monumental Roman Catholic churches as The Church of the Transfiguration in Cobbs Creek (demolished 2009) and St. Boniface on Norris Square in Kensington (d. 2012), as well as such Protestant churches as Mt. Olive AME in Graduate Hospital (d. 2012) and St. John the Evangelist Episcopal in Pennsport (d. 2013). The fates of others, vacant and deteriorating, such as the remarkable Church of the Assumption (built 1849) in Callowhill (for my thoughts on this church, see here), hang in the balance.

Back in April, Hidden City Philadelphia published a list of the city's Top Ten Significant, Vulnerable Churches. One church on the list has long been a particular favorite of mine. I am speaking of Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church on Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia, built in 1887 and designed by Isaac Pursell along with the adjacent seminary for the fledgling denomination, which had only broken with the larger Episcopal Church in 1873 in reaction to the burgeoning influence of the Oxford Movement. While living in suburban Havertown in my youth, our family's preferred route into Center City was the direct one via Chestnut Street. As one approached University City the formidable Victorian Gothic cragginess of the structure came into view on the left, with its perfectly proportioned tower and 171-foot steeple never failing to impress. Likewise famous are its numerous stained-glass windows (see here).

Christ Memorial Church, July 1986. By that time the cross atop the
steeple had already been removed (photo by author)
On the night of August 3, 2004, however, disaster struck in the form of a severe thunderstorm in which no less than 35 lightning strikes were recorded in the church's West Philly neighborhood. One of them struck the steeple, and at 10:32 P.M. the steeple collapsed into a heap of rubble, taking the tower with it, leaving a gaping hole in the roof of the ornate sanctuary. The small congregation immediately filed a claim with GuideOne Insurance, who refused to pay the full amount necessary to repair the structure. After a two year legal battle the church, unable to foot the bill for restoration, sold the edifice to a local developer and united, at least for the time being, with Grace Church in Collingdale, Delaware County. In the meantime, a homeless shelter has operated out of a part of the campus, but the sanctuary remains derelict, with no prospects in sight.

Despite its derelict present state and uncertain future, Christ Memorial Church retains a certain visual power due to the quality of its Gothic design and stone walls. I leave you with a few photos I took of the church back in May, in the hope that someone will eventually step to the plate to save this most magnificent of buildings. After all, it is buildings like these that redeem the urban fabric from the relentless banality that has afflicted all American cities for decades.



Christ Memorial Church, 5 May 2013, as seen from the SW corner of 43rd and Chestnut (photo by author, 5 May 2013)



(photo by author, 5 May 2013)


(photo by author, 5 May 2013)


(photo by author, 5 May 2013)


The promise of the Kingdom of God in Isaiah 60:18 inscribed on the gate (photo by author, 5 May 2013)



(photo by author, 5 May 2013)



(photo by author, 5 May 2013)



Former main entrance (photo by author, 5 May 2013)



Main entrance under former tower (photo by author, 5 May 2013)



(photo by author, 5 May 2013)



(photo by author, 5 May 2013)



Great door of main entrance (photo by author, 5 May 2013)



(photo by author, 5 May 2013)



Looking up at where tower and steeple used to be (photo by author, 5 May 2013)



Looking up through main entrance to the empty sky (photo by author, 5 May 2013)



(photo by author, 5 May 2013)



(photo by author, 5 May 2013)




View south along 43rd Street (photo by author, 5 May 2013)



4 comments:

  1. Thank you for these pictures. It would be a great loss for this building to be torn down. A 2004 master's thesis for the University of Delaware notes that the church ordered its stained glass windows from the Philadelphia firm Groves & Steil and paid the company $4,708.85 for the work in 1887-1888. That same company created all of the windows at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1885-1886. It was one of the most successful stained glass companies in Philadelphia at the end of the 19th century.

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  2. Thank you for the pictures. Christ Memorial is truly amongst Philly's grandest buildings. It's such a shame to see what happened to it's dominant spire. It's very sad that it sits there abandoned, waiting for whatever fate has in store for it.

    Do you think this church has an hope?

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  3. Yes it does, so sad to see a church of great history not be restored may God be the glory of us all!

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