Feb 2, 2022 - News

Philadelphia Black church looks to sell after preservation dispute

Caption: The leaders of Hickman Temple AME Church are looking to sell the property after years of costly structural issues. Photo: Taylor Allen/Axios
The leaders of Hickman Temple AME Church are looking to sell the property after years of structural issues. Photo: Taylor Allen/Axios

Hickman Temple AME Church in West Philadelphia will not be designated a historical site as church leaders look to sell the property.

What's happening: The University City Historical Society withdrew its historic status nomination for the church at 50th Street and Baltimore Avenue last month.

  • Rev. Gregory Nelson told Axios he's looking to sell the property and downsize to a smaller space, in part because his congregation is shrinking.

Between the lines: Nelson said he never wanted the historical designation in the first place, calling the society's withdrawal a welcome end to a nearly two-year "battle" for his congregation.

  • "My issue is that it was forced down our throats," he said.

Catch up fast: The church, originally built in 1898 by Presbyterians, has struggled with structural damage over the past several years.

  • In 2017, the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections forced the congregation to worship at a nearby charter school due to concerns about the building's condition.
  • The congregation, with the help of the community, raised $75,000 of the more than $1 million needed for repairs and was eventually able to return to the church in 2018.

One year later, they had to relocate all over again due to building issues.

  • The church shifted to virtual services during the start of the pandemic in 2020, and that same year, the historical society recommended the building for a historical designation.
  • Last June, the city deemed the building unsafe and ordered the church to develop a remediation plan.

Zoom out: Many houses of worship in Philly have been dealing with aging buildings and dwindling congregation numbers.

What they're saying: Nelson, who's been wanting to sell the property since 2019, told Axios the society nominated the church for historic status without the congregation's input.

  • Church leaders worried the designation would decrease the property's value for sale offers due to the high costs of maintenance.
  • "[A few] white people cannot decide the fate of a historical African American congregation that's been in this location for 47 years," Nelson said.

Amy Lambert, the historical society's president, couldn't confirm or deny whether the organization reached out to the church before nominating the property because the decision was made before her tenure. Lambert also mentioned the historical society met with church leaders after nominating the property and discussed the designation's potential benefits.

  • "Too many undesignated historic buildings get demolished before community input can happen," Lambert added.

The society hopes the property can be reconsidered for a historic designation after the sale.

  • "The building is such a landmark, and we've seen so many churches go to dust when it should be reused," said Lambert.

Meanwhile, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia offered to help find a buyer interested in preserving the building, which Nelson said he's open to.

  • "It's not news that religious congregations of all stripes have faced challenges in maintaining those buildings, and in some cases, it results in churches being sold to the highest bidder and demolitions," said Paul Steinke, the alliance's executive director.

What to watch: Nelson is looking for a new property for the church in Southwest Philly or Upper Darby.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include addition details provided by Lambert.

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