Historic Christ Church, which included Benjamin Franklin and six other signers of the Declaration of Independence among its congregation, has received grants totaling $850,000 to help preserve its 280-year-old structure.

The Christ Church Preservation Trust yesterday announced a $500,000 challenge grant from the Pew Charitable Trust and a $350,000 grant from the National Park Service's Save America's Treasures program.

Although the Georgian-style structure, on 2nd Street north of Market in Old City, remains an active Episcopal church with a congregation of 500, the preservation trust - a nonreligious, nonprofit organization - oversees its maintenance and preservation.

The grants will support the church's $2.5 million Preservation Master Plan, including the second phase of a critically needed fire-protection system for the interior areas and conservation of the deteriorating building structure, according to an announcement of the grants. So far, $1.6 million has been raised.

The first part of a fire-prevention system, to protect the church's 252-year-old steeple, was installed in 2006, two years after the steeple was threatened by a blaze at a nearby umbrella shop.

The original Christ Church was a small brick and wooden building built in 1695, according to an historical Web site.

The elegant building now visited by thousands of tourists a year was begun in 1727 and includes the baptismal font that was used to baptize William Penn. The font, dating from the 1300s, was donated by a church in London.

Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery to raise money to build the steeple, according to the Web site, ushistory.org.

Betsy Ross also worshipped at the church. *