In September, after a series of high-profile church demolitions captured Philadelphia’s attention, the local nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places announced a plan that could reverse the trend.

The 19th Street Baptist Church, built in 1874 in South Philadelphia, was searching for a preservation-minded buyer, the nonprofit said in a statement. The congregation’s lengthy efforts to restore the property were drawing to a close. And while churchgoers planned to relocate by the year’s end, Partners for Sacred Places said, they wanted to find a buyer who would keep the “landmark standing for generations to come.”

“It’s easy to take the money and run,” the Rev. Wilbur Winborne Sr., the church’s leader, told the Inquirer days after the announcement. “But if we can try [to save it], let’s try. Why not? … I don’t want to have any regrets.”

Less than six months after that announcement, however, the serpentine stone church with ties to prominent architect Frank Furness may succumb to the wrecking ball after all.

Last week, the 19th Street Baptist Church secured a zoning permit that begins the demolition process. The permit, first reported by PlanPhilly and applied for by Landmark Architectural Design, calls for bringing down all structures on the site to create a vacant lot. The property, including its sanctuary and fellowship hall, is in the heart of Philadelphia’s fast-gentrifying Point Breeze neighborhood.

The interior of the 19th Street Baptist Church in Point Breeze, photographed in September.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
The interior of the 19th Street Baptist Church in Point Breeze, photographed in September.

Before demolition can proceed, 19th Street Baptist Church and Landmark Architectural Design will need approval from the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which added the church to the city’s historic register in 1984. The parties will likely need to convince the commission that saving the building would be a hardship — financial or otherwise — that would be difficult to overcome.

There is no application before the Historical Commission yet, according to commission spokesperson Paul Chrystie.

Reached by phone, Winborne, who was married and ordained in the church before returning to lead it almost five years ago, declined to comment. It was not immediately clear what may happen to the land, or who the potential buyer is. The 19th Street Baptist Church is still the owner of the property, records show, as it has been since 1944.

Philadelphia is experiencing its hottest real estate market in recent history, and development pressures are flattening sacred places across the city. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, at least 23 once-sacred places were demolished between 2011 and 2015, mostly by developers.

At the same time, demand for developable land has increased, congregations have dwindled, and expansive churches have become increasingly difficult to maintain. Demolition can yield large parcels, which can be transformed into new rowhouses, for example, or a multifamily building.

This church at 19th and Titan Streets is in one of Philadelphia’s newly designated Opportunity Zones. The program, a part of the 2017 tax bill, gives investors lucrative tax breaks for backing real estate and investment projects in low-income communities. (The zones were selected based on 2010 census data.) Developers, in return, can use that capital to put together funds to finance projects.

Stained glass windows inside the 19th Street Baptist Church. Landmark Architectural Design has a zoning permit to demolish the church.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Stained glass windows inside the 19th Street Baptist Church. Landmark Architectural Design has a zoning permit to demolish the church.

The 19th Street Baptist Church, designed by George Hewitt in partnership with Furness, has for years grappled with an “unsafe” designation by the Department of Licenses and Inspections, meaning the property is in poor shape but not in immediate risk of collapsing. The congregation — which Winborne previously said consists of about 125 people — had been using its fellowship hall to worship.

The property, with a land area of about 12,200 square feet, is zoned for attached and semidetached houses.

Known for its distinct cladding of green serpentine stone, the 19th Street church has long been a beloved South Philadelphia site — and, over the years, has received significant support from inside and outside the community. Students from the University of Pennsylvania School of Design studied the building and created solutions for its conservation years ago. The church obtained grants and funds to fix its roof and stabilize the building. And it received support from Partners for Sacred Places.

In an emailed statement, Rachel Hildebrandt, a senior program manager for Partners for Sacred Places, said that although the nonprofit has been “working with 19th Street Baptist for five or so years, we learned that the church applied for a zoning permit calling for the demolition of the church via PlanPhilly.”

“Partners supported the church by providing pro bono fund-raising guidance when it planned to make a go of rehabilitating its building and then by issuing a call for preservation-minded developers when it decided to relocate,” Hildebrandt said. “Unfortunately, the congregation wasn’t able to fully utilize or embrace the resources we brought to bear.”

Patrick Grossi, director of advocacy for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said the group is “obviously disappointed.”

“The property is in a compromised state,” Grossi said. “But not so compromised that we think it’s beyond saving.”

A fence surrounded the 19th Street Baptist Church in September 2018. The Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections previously declared the building as "unsafe."
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
A fence surrounded the 19th Street Baptist Church in September 2018. The Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections previously declared the building as "unsafe."