Good Eye: The steadying presence of Mother Bethel

20161113_inq_good13z-a
Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church at Sixth and Lombard Streets.

The Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church has endured all sorts of turbulence since Bishop Richard Allen settled its members at Sixth and Lombard in 1791, yet the building that houses the congregation today radiates an enduring calm that is steadying in an uncertain world.

The building is actually the fourth Mother Bethel church on the site, which has the distinction of being the oldest parcel of real estate in the U.S. continuously owned by African Americans. As the number of worshipers swelled after the Civil War, the congregation decided to replace its redbrick building with a bigger structure, opening the new Mother Bethel in 1890.

Like many Protestant and Catholic churches erected in the late 19th century, Mother Bethel was designed in the Romanesque Revival style, which had been popularized by the architect H.H. Richardson. Though Richardson is known for favoring dark colors, mixing brownstone and brick, the architects for Mother Bethel clad the main facade in gleaming white granite. The combination of the light palette and the heavy, irregularly cut stones is what gives the church its quiet strength.

The large church must have been quite a statement for an African American congregation in the 1890s. The main facade is elaborately composed, with an asymmetrical bell tower, a dramatic arched entrance, and a profusion of stained glass windows imported from Germany. Quirky, asymmetrical elements were typical of Romanesque Revival. Mother Bethel has those in abundance, but the architects also calm things down around the entrance, framing the arch in a simple grid of square stones.

The granite continues around both sides of the church for a full bay. This portion is a fully realized composition in its own right: The vertical expanse of stone blocks peaks with a gabled roof and is bracketed by scroll-like columns. Although the remainder of side walls are faced with redbrick, the architectural detail and use of stained glass windows are just as extensive as on the main facade.

Mother Bethel's design is attributed to Hazlehurst & Huckel, a short-lived firm that disbanded in 1900, when Samuel Huckel Jr. went off to New York to remodel Grand Central Terminal's interior. Hazlehurst had worked briefly in the office of Frank Furness, and you can see a little of the master's influence in the compressed columns that support the entry arch.

Mother Bethel was founded by Allen, an enslaved African who bought his freedom and became one of the most influential figures in America's black history. An ardent Methodist, he split from the main church after he and other free blacks were told they would be segregated from the main congregation.

It was Allen who bought the property on Sixth Street in 1791 with the intention of building a church for black parishioners. He ended up founding the AME church. Even after the split, Mother Bethel tussled for years with the Methodist Church's white leadership for control of the property. In 1815, Allen was forced pay $10,000 to buy the land back from the main church, but the court settlement sealed Mother Bethel's control over the property, a major victory. Mother Bethel is the second-oldest black church in America, after the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, now in Overbrook Farms.

The church recently erected a statue of Allen in the corner of its parking lot, surrounded by a low brick wall. That lot, incidentally, is often shared with the adjacent B'nai Abraham synagogue on Lombard Street. Completed in 1910, its Moorish facade takes a different design approach. But the juxtaposition of the AME church and the Orthodox Jewish synagogue remains a vivid illustration of multiculturalism in both architecture and urban life.

Mother Bethel African Methodist Church, at Sixth and Lombard Streets, is a short walk from the Fifth Street stop of the Market Frankford El. It is also served by the Route 40 bus.

ingasaffron@gmail.com

215-854-2213

@ingasaffron

www.philly.com/saffron