A zoning permit issued for the former site of the Trinity Evangelical United Church has revealed plans for the owner’s “full demolition” of the church.
A zoning permit issued for the former site of the Trinity Evangelical United Church has revealed plans for the owner’s “full demolition” of the church. It has been a fixture along Germantown’s upper Germantown Avenue corridor since the late 19th century. If demolished, the church’s demise would continue a recent trend of increased demolitions in the neighborhood. It lies half a block east of Germantown Avenue, at the corner of Duval and Baynton Streets.
The church, which neighbors say was active until last year, had historically been a focal point for the neighborhood, according to Germantown resident Roz McKelvey, who was previously a member.
“We used the church to reach out to people, some of whom were homeless, some who had drug addiction issues,” she said. “We’d block the street off to have events like anti-violence fun and game nights.”
Maurice Demosthene, a local realtor who’s name is on the zoning permit told The Local, “the definitive direction of the building isn’t clear,” and the possibility of leaving the building standing is still on the table. So is adaptive reuse.
“The property is in dire need of repair,” he said in a phone call. “We’re going to do what’s best for the project and the community, but we’re not not considering the community. That’s not the case at all.”
According to the city spokesperson Joy Huertas, whether or not the building gets demolished is up to the owner, but “it seems that there is an intent to demolish” according to the zoning permit, she said, which notes “full demolition” listed next to “type of work.” However, a formal demolition permit for the property has yet to be obtained by the developer in addition to the zoning permit.
“A zoning permit is the first step in a development/building process,” she explained in an email. “A building permit will not be issued without first obtaining a zoning permit. Construction or demolition cannot begin until the building permit is obtained.”
Allison Weiss, president of SoLo Germantown Civic Association, said that neighbors were “extremely upset” to learn of the church’s potential demolition.
“Churches and buildings like this are important to people because it’s part of their community,” she said. “Those are gathering places. We lose our identity, our sense of place when these things disappear.”
One of McKelvey’s lasting memories of the church was from 9/11, when the church opened its doors for people who wanted to pray.
“Everyone was crying, everyone was hysterical,” McKelvey said. “We open the doors and people would come in and sit and cry and pray. When nighttime came, people were still coming in to pray.”
The church would also open its doors when there were murders in the neighborhood.
“The neighbors expected those doors to be open during a crisis,” said McKelvey.
Oscar Beisert, a local preservationist and historian, said that Germantown’s below-average rate of historic designation has allowed many potentially historic buildings to be demolished to make way for development. Only about two percent of buildings in the neighborhood are listed on the city’s Register of Historic Places — a designation which prevents them from being demolished save for rare circumstances.
“At a meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, Paul Steinke, executive director of The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia noted that Germantown had “endured a long period of decline and decay, but is now seeing an influx of new investment.”
“Instead of restoring the neighborhood, we see demolition and destruction for new construction,” he continued. “If you care about the city's historic character and this neighborhood, that is a tragedy.”
The Joseph T. Pearson House, located at 5139 Wayne Avenue, is one example of a recently demolished building that was celebrated by residents. Buildings at 5821-23 Germantown Avenue and 5825 Germantown Avenue, which were contributing to the Colonial Germantown Avenue Historic District — a national historic landmark — were also demolished within the past two years. Same goes for the Wood Norton Residences, located at 370 W. Johnson St.
“The city must do more to protect its rich and diverse history, and make adapting and reusing places like old churches as financially attractive as possible,” said Lori Salganicoff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy. “Our environment is eroding building by building.”
Buildings like Trinity Evangelical United, Salganicoff said, “have been an important part of our community fabric for over 100 years.”