“Preserving First”: $2.5 Million Renovation of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia

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$2.5 million renovation of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia nears completion.

Photo courtesy of Tom Crane.

The congregation at First Church is committed to ‘Preserving First’ to insure that its ministry will continue now and for generations to come.

If you’ve passed the corner of 21st and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia at any time during the past six months, you may have wondered what was happening. Construction equipment filled the sidewalk, obscuring the view of the building that has occupied that corner for the past 141 years. That work is now nearing completion, bringing to a close a $2.5 million renovation of The First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, a landmark of the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood.

Built in 1872 as a new home for the Second Presbyterian Church (established in 1743), the original building was designed by Henry Augustus Sims. The Parish House was added in 1884 and designed by Theophilus Chandler, one of the most prolific architects in the then rapidly developing Rittenhouse Square area. The firm of Furness & Evans added the church’s tower in 1900. Among the most unusual of the decorative touches are the carvings done both inside and out by Alexander Calder, the first of his commissions in the United States.

Since the reunion of First and Second Presbyterian Churches at this site in 1949, the merged congregation has been known as the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Originally established in 1698, the church over the years occupied sites in Old City, on Washington Square, and on Locust Street prior to the move to its current location.

The project began six years ago with a thorough assessment of the church’s facilities led by the local firm of Atkins Olshin Schade Architects. That survey resulted in plans for extensive repairs and renovations focused on accessibility issues, upgrade of infrastructure, code compliance, and repairs to the masonry and roofs to insure the integrity of the “exterior envelope.” Notable improvements undertaken to the interior are renovated restrooms, a new elevator, and a new entrance on Chancellor Street, all designed to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards.

In the fall of 2010, First Church partnered with Hewett Consulting, a national firm offering strategic council to churches and other nonprofits, to conduct a capital feasibility study and the subsequent Preserving First for Our Future capital campaign, which followed in the spring of 2011. Throughout the spring, teams involving over 100 members and friends of First Church worked together toward our campaign pledge goal of $1 million. In June 2011, First Church launched the 3-year capital campaign. Members and friends pledged nearly $1.2 million to the campaign, exceeding the goal of $1 million. As of February 2013, halfway through the campaign, almost $900,000 (76%) has been raised.

The Preserving First project was undertaken to restore the home of this historic and vibrant congregation; the project also benefits the numerous community groups that currently use the building. Among them are Reading Buddies, an intergenerational tutoring program pairing children from local elementary schools with community volunteers; Musicopia, a program for young musicians now involving over a hundred youth who fill the building with beautiful sounds every Tuesday evening; and Penn’s Village, a community of Center City Philadelphia residents linking neighbor to neighbor. The improvements will also enhance the church’s ability to offer fully accessible meeting space to various civic and community groups.

About The First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia: The First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia at 21st and Walnut Streets was founded in 1698. Since then we have been a home to a diverse group of Christians from the greater Philadelphia region. We are many voices but one people who seek to glorify God through worship, prayer, and theological inquiry, to live the love of Christ through service to others, and to provide a welcoming and nurturing presence in this urban community. We are active members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Presbytery of Philadelphia and the Covenant Network.

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Jesse Garner
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