When Isaac and Rose Miller arrived to Philadelphia in 1986, they were originally looking for a historic district to buy a home from. After seeing the Spring Garden neighborhood in a book about restored historic areas, they became convinced about moving there, which they eventually did in 1998. They moved next to an old church on the 1500 block of Green Street.
“This area was the first suburb, allegedly,” Rose Miller said. “Lots of manufacturing people who owned businesses wanted to have luxurious homes [in this area].”
During Philadelphia’s hot manufacturing period, Rose Miller said that Spring Garden was on par with Rittenhouse Square as an area where the wealthy and powerful lived. As a sign of its affluence, the 1500 block was the only block that had steps going up to houses, as opposed to on the ground.
The Preservation Alliance marks the construction year of the church as 1860, opening as a Christ Reformed Church. Like many churches, this Green Street church was passed from one denomination to another. In 1862, it became a Christ’s Evangelical Reformed Church, and in 1875, a Christian Reformed Church, among others.
Many wealthy business owners worshipped at the church, including the Wanamaker family, owners of the first department store in Philadelphia.
At the back of the building, what looks like a smaller door was used as the designated entrance for the poor in the neighborhood. Wealthy people of influence entered on Green Street, the larger more aesthetically-pleasing front entrance.
As the Industrial Age waned and the business owners fled for the suburbs, a lower income community moved into the area. As the neighborhood changed, the owners and denomination of the church changed right along with it.
The Millers said neighborhoods took a beating about 50 years ago, and an influx of low-income minorities settled on the block, marking a racial change on the block and in ownership of the church.
“These houses that were once rich people’s houses became rooming houses for probably some of the poorest people in the city,” Isaac Miller said.
In the 2000s, it is recorded that the Church belonged to a Latino congregation, but Spring Garden CDC president, Justino Navarro, remembers the Hispanic congregation vividly while growing up in the late 1970s, and 1980s. There was a Police Athletic League (PAL) component to the church, which offered after-school help to neighborhood kids and recreational activities like table tennis, basketball and more.
“It really took a lot of the children off the streets during after school, the more dangerous and vulnerable hours for teenagers in the city,” Navarro said. “It served a great purpose with regards to community outreach.”
Rose Miller said there was an after school program and a health related component to the church when they arrived at Spring Garden in 1998. By the time they got there, the Hispanic congregation had already owned the church for years but the church was in bad shape inside, suffering with deferred maintenance.
“I went in on a Sunday after church,” Isaac Miller said. “Folks were in an area, in the church, that had plastic over the top and plastic along the sides and, of course, what was going on was that the roof was leaking badly.”
Since the congregation was small, Isaac Miller said they only heated the space where the congregation would meet, in a tent-like space, to lower costs.
It was deteriorated beyond repair and rising taxes drove out the small congregation, making the building available to its current fate.
Over time, the church landed in the hands of not a pastor, not an ordained minister but a developer, who converted the sanctuary into Chapel Lofts.
Navarro said the small congregation had a hard time with the high expenses of maintaining a building of such magnitude and once they capitalized on their investment, they decided to build a church elsewhere. When developer Gary Reisner, the founder of the Regis Group development company, approached the church in 2003, only the PAL center in the basement remained. The main congregation had already moved.
The African American and Hispanic population in the community had dropped and, as buying, flipping and selling picked up, the value of the area rose, forcing people to move. The demographics changed and so did the affordability of the area.
“Thirty or 35 years ago,” Isaac Miller said, “folks discovered that these kind of properties in areas like this, you could buy for next to nothing and fix them up. And so the gentrification started.”
In 2007, Reisner converted the sanctuary into 17 multi-levelved condos, investing $3.5 million into the building’s restoration and residential conversions.
In Spring Garden, Navarro said 50 percent of the old churches have been turned into residential spaces.
Rose Miller still thinks this area is unique despite it not being as diverse as it used to be. She remembers Latino and African American kids playing on the block but the new wave of community members are renters, who don’t tend to stay for long.
“It’s sad. When we first came here, it would be great,” she said. “I would be walking our dog and all these little kids would come and you would really have a good time meeting them. Now, there are hardly any kids in this neighborhood at all.”
The couple agreed it was just luck they had been living there for as long as they have in order to qualify for a long-term owner reduction – a tax reduction the city grants long time homeowners. But even so, the couple’s taxes have gone up one and a half times.
“Taxes in this neighborhood, in the time that we have been here, shot up at least three times what we were paying when we first got here,” Isaac Miller said. “That alone means that the composition of the neighborhood changes. That means that when it comes to a church like this, that congregation gets priced out of the neighborhood and it was a very small congregation to start with.”
-Text, video and images by Maryvic Perez.