Zion Baptist Church

Zion Annex, 1942, Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Kate Cowing was first introduced to Zion Baptist Church through an initiative called Sacred Places/Civic Spaces. This initiative, by the Community Design Collaborative and Partners for Sacred Places, was developed to challenge the belief that the sale or demolition is only solution to urban religious properties with wonderful but underutilized infrastructure. Three religious properties and three design teams were each competitively chosen and teamed together to repurpose the religious property’s underutilized spaces. Most distinctively, the reuse was not based on the real estate market but rather on the needs of the immediate community. Kate was the historic preservation consultant with the architectural firm, Studio 6mm, working with the Zion Baptist Church.

In the 1960’s Zion Baptist Church had between 3,000 and 6,000 congregants. They purchased a building across the street from the church, the Annex, to house the vast number of community programs they supported. They also constructed a new Church building to house their considerable congregation. At the time of the initiative, in 2018, the church had only 150 congregants who attended services and the Annex was empty.

Kate researched the extraordinary history of the Zion congregation and of the Annex building itself. It was acquired by Zion under the leadership of the international civil-rights leader, Rev Leon Sullivan. She completed a detailed condition assessment of the building and developed restoration recommendations.

Sacred Place/ Civic Spaces had a unique public engagement process in which after the design team familiarized themselves with the infrastructure, community meetings were held at the church. The public attendees told the design team about their community and shared their personal ideas for the future of the property. All of the ideas were compiled and presented to the audience. The most popular and feasible ideas were chosen during that meeting by all involved. Through these meetings the design team developed a rich understanding of the community. This ensured a critical element to success: the rehabilitation represents the community it serves. The Zion reuse scheme created during this initiative is currently being developed into reality.

Sacred Places/Civic Spaces is a 2020 Grand Jury Award Winner by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Kate presented Sacred Places/Civic Spaces at the 2020 Joint Annual Conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Association for Preservation Technology.

In 2023, Zion Baptist Church chose Kate Cowing Architect, LLC to lead a Historic Preservation and Stewardship Plan for their main church building, a similar scope of work as the Annex project. This project is being partially funded by a Conserving Black Modernism grant from the grant partnership between the Getty Foundation and the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. KCA will complete a condition assessment and treatment recommendations for the church building as well as investigating re-use ideas with the same process as the original initiative.

Given its prominence in the civil rights movement of the 1950, 60s and 70s, Zion Baptist Church is considered Nationally important enough that it was been successfully nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, prior to being 50 years old. A very rare honor.

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