Century-old Overbrook church gutted by fire

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A firefighter-EMT tries to cool down using a towel from the Salvation Army.

A massive fire Monday morning gutted a century-old Overbrook church that has been both a place of worship and a community center.

The blaze was reported just before 9 a.m. in the basement of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church on the 6400 block of Lansdowne Avenue. It sent flames through the roof, darkening the sky with smoke and causing major damage to the building.

No injuries were reported.

The granite and limestone church had housed about five congregations and served about 300 people, according to the wife of Good Shepherd's pastor.

Word spread quickly through the community.

"It's going to be a big loss. People are just not going to know what to do," said Pauline Rosenberg, vice president of the Neighbors of Overbrook Association. "It was so much more than a church."

The fire, which took more than 100 firefighters two hours to bring under control, destroyed the roof. Burned-away wood trusses left the walls partly unsupported and the church unstable.

Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said the department was "a long way from knowing the cause" of the blaze.

"We'll try and save as much as we can," Thiel said. "The damage is pretty extensive."

Mary Lou Adams, the wife of Good Shepherd pastor J.B. Adams, was at home doing laundry when she received a call from the church caretaker.

"The church is on fire," she recalled the caretaker's saying. When she arrived there, she said, "everything was out of control."

The three-story building had some living quarters on its second floor.

Rick Klemm, 47, got out of the shower when the water became "very hot" and the power went out. Klemm grabbed a towel, his wallet, car keys, and cellphone, and entered the hallway, which was filled with smoke. He dropped to his knees and began to crawl.

"I was trying to feel my way to the stairs," he said, adding that he worried he wouldn't make it out as he continued to crawl.

"This is unreal," he recalled thinking. "I'm going to die with nothing but a towel around me."

Charles Adams, the pastor's identical twin, who lives in an apartment at the church, said he left the building but ran back inside to retrieve his computer when he saw smoke billowing.

"It was pretty smoky," he said. "I was going by feel."

Good Shepherd was built more than a century ago and dedicated as the J. Addison Henry Memorial Presbyterian Church, named for a longtime church leader in the city. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia said the church was designed by architect Charles Bolton.

Good Shepherd, according to the church's website, was known as "The Church on the Hill," and "its solid two-foot granite Gothic walls were quarried from the very bed rock on which she stands, according to tradition." An Inquirer article from July 1912 said the church would be built at a cost of $28,000.

Good Shepherd, according to its website, "is no longer in its glory of highest membership," but it has become a home for other congregations as its own membership declined. Good Shepherd was also a focal point and meeting place for various community organizations, including the Neighbors of Overbrook Association.

"It's been in the community for so long. It was a base for Overbrook," said Lisa Iliopoulos, owner of Little People's Village, a child-care center that often ran summer camps at Good Shepherd.

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