Like many churches in urban centers of the United States, Arch Street Presbyterian Church has a long history. This history, while similar to the broader Presbyterian story, also has unique characteristics that are reflective of demographic changes occurring in center city neighborhoods of Philadelphia.
The current congregation at 1724 Arch St is a product of five congregations that merged over the past one hundred years. The first congregation known as Arch Street was established in 1813 as the Fifth Presbyterian Church. Fifth Presbyterian called a few pastors but none stayed longer than a few years until Dr. Thomas H. Skinner was called in 1816. Skinner began his tenure at the church by preaching a series of sermons against doctrinal preaching that eventually led to a threatened church trial for heresy. While the trial never occurred, the new pastor garnered plenty of attention that rapidly increased the size of the growing congregation and the building of a new sanctuary that was dedicated on Saturday June 7, 1823. When Skinner left to be a Professor at Andover Seminary in 1832 the congregation had 600 members, a number which fell quickly after his departure. The bitter disputes within the congregation over Skinner’s successor led to only 92 remaining members who greeted George Duffield as their new pastor in 1835. Duffield’s departure in 1837 was likely due to tensions within the church regarding the New School/Old School split within the national Presbyterian Church, as Fifth Presbyterian Church soon was among the leading Old School congregations while Duffield became a prominent New School Pastor.
After a decade of decline and waning membership numbers, Fifth Presbyterian was reorganized in February 1850 as Arch Street Presbyterian Church and called Charles Wadsworth as its pastor. Wadsworth served for thirteen years, and the congregation grew rapidly, often filling the sanctuary an hour before services began, causing the session to build a trap door behind the pulpit to allow Wadsworth to enter through the basement of the building. While the church continued to maintain robust membership figures during the tenures of N. W. Conklin (1863- 1868) and John Withrow (1868-1873), the continued industrialization of the eastern portions of Center City led to the removal of many residential units and parishioners from the neighborhood surrounding the church by the mid-1870s. Many members moved to the growing suburban neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city core, causing the church’s membership to decline under the tenures of Walter Scott (1874-1878) and John Sands (1880-1890). While the church’s membership had rejected a merger with Second Presbyterian in March 1868, the Session strongly considered merger in March 1894, as the income from pew rents declined drastically under the leadership of George Wilson (1891-1897). Following Wilson’s retirement in 1897 the congregation discussed merger with West Arch Street, and received approval from the Philadelphia Presbytery in June 1897.
The West Arch Street congregation that Arch Street members joined in 1897 had been in existence since 1828 when the congregation was organized as 11th Presbyterian in November 1828. The new church called John Grand as pastor in June 1829, he served until 1850. With the arrival of Pastor John Miller in 1850, the church sought a new sanctuary to house the ever- growing congregation that soon became one of the largest Old School congregations in the country. The present-day sanctuary was built between 1853 and 1855, with the cornerstone laid on May 21, 1855 in the presence of numerous conservative and southern Presbyterian elites, including Princeton Professors A.B. Van Zandt and Robert Breckinridge. The Greek Revival sanctuary was designed by Joseph Hoxie and built to seat 900 on the ground floor and 200 in the galleries at a cost of $103,571.27 (or $2.5 million in 2009 dollars). After Miller’s departure (and death while fighting for the Confederacy in 1864), Jonathan Edwards (1857-1866) a descendant of theologian Jonathan Edwards, became pastor and at one point welcomed the Prince of Wales to a service. After Edwards’ tenure Alphonso Willits (1867-1880) and John Hemphill (1882-1893) served the congregation, which soon began experiencing some of the same neighborhood transition that had transformed the Arch Street Congregation seven blocks to the east. Despite margining with Arch Street in 1897 the congregation continued to experience membership decline under the tenure of Mervin J. Eckels (1893-1913), as the central portion of the city became a growing commercial district for the metropolitan Philadelphia region.
Part II: The Revitalization of Center City Philadelphia
With its location in the heart of Center City, Arch Street Presbyterian was adversely affected by its population decline between 1860 and 1960. With the Center City neighborhood rapidly becoming an industrial and later commercial center, the residential population declined, resulting in many members of the church changing their membership to churches in their new neighborhood. Yet in the past fifty years the population of Center City rebounded, and since 1960 has gained population while Philadelphia’s overall population decline, and the metropolitan region’s population remained static. The population of Center City increased from 43,465 in 1970 to 49,211 in 2000, a 13% increase over the past thirty years. While the population of the neighborhoods to the north and south of Center City continued to decline until 2000, the median housing values increased along with median income levels. The rise in income and population levels is due in part to the development of new residential units throughout Center City. While new residential unit construction had occurred since the 1970s, the passage of a 10 year tax abatement program in 1997 for new housing developments in Philadelphia certainly made such ventures more profitable. Between 1997 and 2008 10,316 new housing units were constructed in Center City and in the surrounding core neighborhoods to the north and south (known as the “Extended Area”). The wave of developments after 1997 further increased the Center City residential population from 49,211 in 2000 to 57,000 in 2008, while the total expanded area population rose from 78,902 in 2000 to 90,000 in 2008. Much of this development is high-end condos, lofts, and townhouses that are moving into neighborhoods such as Queen Village and Northern Liberties on the outskirts of Center City that have historically been working-class or low-income. A recent Center City District publication reports that 41% of the new residents have moved into their new dwellings from outside the City of Philadelphia. These new arrivals to the neighborhoods around Arch Street Presbyterian are well-educated (with 47% holding an advanced or professional degree), and are generally between the age of 25 and 34, and generally are “empty-nesters” (married couple without children), although there is a sizable number of single residents in the city. While the population of Center City is still largely white, a sizable and increasing minority is multi-racial. With the rebirth in the residential population of Center City, the population density of the area has increased as well, providing increase impetus for mixed use commercial development that further promotes revitalization efforts for the city’s core.
-Written by Peter Bratt