Philadelphia Community Rallies to Save Crumbling Frank Furness Church
November 16, 2011
Earlier in August, Naked Philly reported on the crumbling state of the 19th Street Baptist Church in Philadelphia, remarking on the harsh, bright orange citations taped to its windows and doors and floating rumors of demolition if immediate action were not taken.
Looking past the disintegrating façade and the gaping holes in the roof, one can see a rather remarkable structure made of striking green brick and asymmetrically cobbled together Victorian Gothic forms. As locals lamented the impending bad news, a certain Steve S. sounded the alarm with his pithy response: “I’m about to make it worse: It’s a Frank Furness!”
Since then, a mob of Philadelphia-based blogs, along with a group called the Preservation Alliance, several University of Pennsylvania professors, local building professionals, and even the city mayor, has rallied to save the building from demolition. As the deadline for repairs looms ever closer, many fear that one of the few surviving artifacts of Frank Furness’s built legacy is seriously under threat. Read on.
Who is Frank Furness? This obscure architect’s renown may be traced back fairly simply by starting with another name: Frank Lloyd Wright. Urbanist Lewis Mumford traced Wright’s lineage back to his tutelage under Louis Sullivan, the Chicagoan “father of skyscrapers” who, so it turns out, worked in Furness’s Philadelphia firm as a fledgling young architect until the economic downturn in 1873.
But Furness is recognized for much more than just occupying a place in a pedigree of famous American architects. His distinctive style is marked by a highly eclectic play of forms: disregarding conventional scales and formal combinations, Furness challenged conservative architectural syntax with buildings that freely mix and match their components, truncating, grafting, and amalgamating traditional parts of the building with bold indifference to the symbolic logic of the outcome.
19th Street Baptist Church, photo via Hidden City Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia’s 19th Street Baptist Church, one can instantly detect the architect’s characteristic perversion of the Victorian Gothic, running pitched roofs up against square towers and creating a visual push and pull with his use of contrasting colored bricks. The church is a vibrant, “moving” building, as if in a continuous state of neatly expanding and contracting right on the corner of the 19th and Titan Streets.
One Naked Philly reader remarked on the use of green serpentine brick, a notably rare and costly building material that hints at the church’s immense value, not just historically but also financially. Back in 2000, the Philadelphia Daily News dug even deeper, discovering that Furness was commissioned by the Wachovia Bank heiress Margaretta Lewis to design the church as a memorial to her parents. The building was eventually sold to the all-black Baptist Church in 1944, with a series of messy, racially charged lawsuits exchanged.
Now, the church sits like a weathered ruin, without its original endowment to support years of necessary upkeep. As the masonry disintegrates, the congregation, along with locals and architectural enthusiasts, is struggling to raise the funds to repair the church before the city makes a final call for demolition. An estimated $100,000 is needed to restore the building to its original condition, but contractors suggest settling on a makeshift solution, hoping to raise around $3,000 and attract volunteers to first return the church to a safely inhabitable condition before taking on more ambitious goals of historic preservation.
The demolition of the church would be a monumental loss for the legacy of American architecture. To help support the restoration of the 19th Street Baptist Church, you can send donations payable to “19th Street Baptist Church” to c/o W. Wilson Goode Sr., 2000 Market Street, Philadelphia PA 19103.