Byberry Friends Meeting House Complex

Byberry, a very early Quaker Meeting, was established in 1683, and received the first acre of the current site as a gift in 1694. The property has grown to now over five acres, four buildings and two burial grounds, and has been witness to the history of Philadelphia and the nation. The Byberry Friends were Kate Cowing Architect’s (KCA) first client, and their relationship continues over a number of projects including an addition to the Meeting House, a National Register nomination, successful grant applications, a Historic Preservation Plan and the Stabilization of Byberry Hall, the first phase of the Plan’s multi-phased recommendations.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Byberry’s membership has been in a steady decline. This was caused at first by change in demographic of the surrounding area from farming to institutional (hospitals and prisons) and finally to suburban development. Sadly the decline is now because the remaining members are aging. Seeing the inevitable outcome if they did not stop this trend, the Friends decided to throw everything they had into building membership. The first step was to hire KCA to add plumbing and make the building accessible for those with physical difficulties.

These changes would require a very delicate touch. The Byberry Meeting House is the third on the site and very little has changed in the meeting house since its original construction in 1808, except the subtle introduction of electricity and central heating. When inside the Meeting House, one can almost feel the thousands of quakers who have sat on the benches. It was clear that an addition would be the only way to resolve the goals rather than disturb the existing spaces. A number of locations were explored until finally the location of the previously demolished men’s outhouse became the clear answer. The addition is level with the Meeting house floor and has an ADA compliant sloped walkway leading to its entrance. There are two restrooms, a kitchenette and a room to accommodate gatherings which don’t need a space as large as the Meeting house.

Next, the Byberry Friends retained KCA to complete a Historic Resource Survey Form. This form serves as an initial national register nomination. It explains the history and significance of a building/site, and its historic integrity. This work required significant historic research. The Byberry Meeting House Complex was determined to be Eligible for the National Register for Historic Places.

Byberry Meeting has not only been important to Philadelphia history and Quaker history, it has been a site of national importance. First, the Complex was home to the first and only school in Byberry Township until the early-nineteenth century and the only racially integrated school until the mid-nineteenth century. The current school building, constructed in 1827, is the third on the site. One of Byberry’s school teachers and members, John Comly, was the leader of the “Great Separation” of 1827. This schism separated quakers who followed the traditional beliefs of founder George Fox, called Hicksites, from those with more protestant / biblical beliefs, called Orthodox. The Byberry Friends were Hicksites. The split was not resolved until the middle of the 20th century.

Additionally, Byberry Hall, the last building constructed in the Complex, is a purpose-built abolition hall. It was constructed by Robert and Harriet Purvis, a wealthy free-Black couple who were prominent abolitionists. They constructed Byberry Hall in 1846. National leaders of the abolition movement as well as the women’s suffrage movement are known to have spoken here. The mission of this building as a place for public gathering continued until the mid-20th century.

Eligibility qualifies the Complex for Keystone Historic Preservation Grants from the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission. KCA put together a successful grant application to complete a Historic Preservation Plan for the Byberry Meeting House Complex. The Keystone grant provided a 50/50 match for the expense of completing this expansive document.

KCA spent approximately a year researching the history of the site, the existing conditions, code compliance, and then developing treatment recommendations for the entire site including cost estimates for the work. The recommendations were broken down into phases by importance and condition of each of the four buildings and two burial grounds. This planning document has provided the Meeting with a prescriptive plan forward. Using the document, the Meeting has been able to show granting organizations that they have a long-range plan for the site, a key element to support grant applications.

The most recent grant that KCA assisted Byberry Friends with was to fund the first part of the phased project list, the stabilization of Byberry Hall. It was deemed to be the priority for the site for three reasons. First, it has serious repair issues including water intrusion and crumbing entry steps. Second, as a former abolition hall, it is arguably the most historically important building on the site. Lastly, a recent tenant moved out and the Friends hope to use it as a community center; as a safe place for frank conversations about difficult subjects. This is not only a mission close to the heart of Quakerdom but also the original use of the building. This construction will be completed in the spring of 2024.

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