Philadelphia, which has been experiencing a wave of church demolitions, could lose one of its largest and most distinctive sanctuaries if a West Philadelphia apartment developer goes ahead with a plan to raze a 19th-century church and seminary at 43rd and Chestnut Streets.
Guy Laren, owner of Constellar Corp., secured a permit last week to tear down Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church, which spans a full city block in the Spruce Hill neighborhood. Completed in 1888, the granite-clad complex was built in the same Gothic style as Britain’s Houses of Parliament. Its facade features an exuberant series of peaked gables, each bracketed by swirling turrets.
Spruce Hill emerged during the late 19th century after the city’s new streetcar system made it possible for middle-class families to live in single-family homes and commute easily to Center City. While Spruce Hill’s rich collection of Victorian architecture has been honored as a National Register historic district, only a handful of buildings are formally protected by the city’s Historical Commission.
The church has long been a neighborhood beacon. The architectural historian Robert Skaler once described its 171-foot steeple as “a great exclamation point. That slender tower collapsed suddenly Aug. 3, 2004. At the time the complex was being used as a school by Christ Academy. The church had been occupied by a variety of tenants as recently as 2014. Laren bought the property the previous year.
Two architectural historians, Amy Lambert and Rachel Hildebrandt, were just completing a nomination for the city’s historic register when they learned that Laren had obtained a demolition permit. Laren did not respond to a request for comment.
As students from the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University have moved west to neighborhoods like Spruce Hill, developers have responded by tearing down the neighborhood’s quirky Victorian buildings and replacing them with more efficient, box-like structures. The financial advantages of replacing the old buildings with modern construction are substantial. Not only can developers fit more units onto their property, the new apartments qualify for the city’s 10-year tax abatement.
In response to the wave of demolitions, Mayor Kenney created a Historic Preservation Task Force to look at new approaches. After meeting for more than 10 months, however, it has produced only a single report describing the city’s existing law and incentives. Patrick Grossi, the advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance and a member of the task force, said Christ Memorial would have been a good candidate for a policy known as “demolition delay,” which would allow the Historical Commission to review a building’s importance before the city granted a demolition permit.
It is more than dazzling architecture that makes Christ Memorial stand out. The complex was commissioned and paid for by Harriet Smith Benson, then one of the richest women in Philadelphia, according to the nomination prepared by Lambert and Hildebrandt. Although Benson grew up in luxury, she embraced the Reformed Episcopal movement, a spinoff that sought to bring Episcopalianism back to more Protestant practices amid the growth of the Anglo-Catholic movement. The seminary was included in the complex.
Under her instruction, the church hired the noted Protestant church architect Isaac Pursell, of Pursell & Fry, to design the complex. The mix of English and French Gothic elements intentionally reference pre-Reformation church architecture, according to the nomination prepared by Lambert and Hildebrandt. This architecture “rejected ‘high church’ (which places an emphasis on ritual and accouterments) and embraced a purist, evangelical approach,” they wrote.
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Laren’s intentions for the site are not clear. He rescued the Church of the Atonement at 47th Street and Kingsessing Avenue in 2015 after it had been slated for demolition and turned it into apartments. If he razes Christ Memorial, it would be the largest church demolition in the city since another Gothic-style sanctuary, St. Bonaventure Roman Catholic Church in North Philadelphia, was torn down in 2013.