How Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places Have Been Repurposed

How Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places Have Been Repurposed
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Built in 1878, the former Saint Agatha’s Roman Catholic Church is now The Cloisters, an apartment building in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia.

© PennPraxis

Traveling around Philadelphia, you may notice buildings that look like houses of worship but have become something else altogether.

A new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts found that nearly 10 percent of the city’s 839 structures built for religious purposes prior to 1965 had been put to other, non-religious uses as of 2015 and early 2016, when the survey was conducted.

As the graphic below shows, the most common reuse was residential, with 17 buildings repurposed as multifamily residences and seven as single-family homes. Eight were being used as schools, and six housed preschool or childcare centers. Others had become homes to arts and culture centers, service agencies, and professional office complexes. The largest number of changes came in the city’s Central planning district, which includes Center City, with the rest scattered in other sections.

Sacred places in Philadelphia

Examples of repurposed historic sacred places

A 128-year-old church building in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood is one example of how a historic sacred place can be repurposed. The structure, built as St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church and later home to Greater St. Matthew Baptist, now houses 38 residential units and is known as Sanctuary Lofts.

Sacred places in Philadelphia
© PennPraxis

In 2015, the Waldorf School of Philadelphia moved into the former St. Peter's Episcopal Church of Germantown. The church, which was designed by famed Philadelphia architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt in the 19th Century, had sat empty for years.

Sacred places in Philadelphia
© PennPraxis
Sacred places in Philadelphia
© PennPraxis

In East Falls, a stone building that was once home to the Falls of the Schuylkill Methodist Episcopal Church has been repurposed as an office complex. In recent years, the building has housed a design firm, freelance writers, an illustrator, graphic designers, an artisanal baker, therapy offices, and a photographer.

Factors that help determine adaptability

Factors that determine whether an historic sacred space can be readily adapted to other uses include the nature of the neighborhood—options are likely to be more plentiful in areas that are stable or undergoing revitalization—the condition of the building, and the layout and/or size of the structure. The largest share of those that have been repurposed had relatively simple floor plans and relatively modest footprints. Larger churches with more intricate layouts or those with soaring vertical spaces can be more difficult to adapt.

About the research

Pew’s report, Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places: Their Past, Present, and Future, is based on research performed by PennPraxis of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, with assistance from Partners for Sacred Places.

Larry Eichel directs Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative and edited the study.

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Sacred places in Philadelphia
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Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places

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Report

Philadelphia is home to a large number and wide variety of buildings that qualify as historic sacred places, which, for this report, are defined as those constructed as houses of worship before 1965, regardless of whether they are currently used in that way. The research found that 839 historic sacred places (HSPs) were still standing in 2015 and early 2016, one for roughly every 1,900 city residents. And it found the condition of the surviving structures, as judged by systematic examinations of their exteriors, to be mostly good or very good overall.

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Gentrification in Philadelphia
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Determining the Future of Philadelphia’s Historic Sacred Places

The Role of Gentrification and Neighborhood Change

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Neighborhood change of any kind can threaten the stability of historic sacred places (HSPs). Rising poverty and declining quality of life often have a negative impact on religious buildings and the stability of the congregations that occupy them. But the same is true for the sort of rapid, upscale change often labeled as gentrification.