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Fate of black church building may depend upon historic past

As a city with many buildings built in the first two centuries of its existence, Philadelphia is constantly faced with decisions about how to treat old buildings that may have out-lived their original use. Differences of opinion on this question have started many heartfelt and hard fought real estate disputes in the city. A current example of the City's dilemma is the First African Baptist Church in South Philadelphia.

The church was built in 1906 and now houses the oldest black Baptist congregation in Philadelphia. The pastor believes that the building has become too expensive to maintain, and he wants to sell the church to a developer and use the sale proceeds to relocate the congregation. The pastor has been negotiating with a developer who wants to buy the church, demolish it and build condominiums.

Some members of the congregation agree with the pastor, but other members and local preservation advocates strongly disagree. Those who wish to preserve the building argue that it has too much historic value to be demolished. The historic importance, they claim, can be found in the church's history one of the oldest "purpose-built" black churches in Philadelphia.

The group that opposes demolition has started a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction that would prevent demolition until the claims about historic significance are resolved in court. A private citizen who has become something of a preservation gadfly recently filed a petition with the Philadelphia Historical Commission asking that the church be designated as historical significant, a designation that could conceivably block any plans to demolish the church. One of the commission's committees has recommended approval of the petition, but the full commission must approve the designation before it becomes official.

Like many similar controversies involving older and beloved buildings, this dispute is far from over. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the complexity of the issues that can affect the fate of such buildings. Anyone who owns such a building or has an interest in preserving such a structure may wish to consult an attorney who specializes in real estate disputes. Such an attorney can provide an analysis of the facts of the case, the various real estate laws and regulations that may apply and an enumeration of legal strategies that may help obtain the desired outcome.

Source: Philly.com, "Committee recommends historic protection for First African Baptist Church," Jared Brey, Sep. 17, 2015

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