Baptist Church of the Evangel: 198 Elmwood Avenue, Narberth
Constructed in 1892
The demolition of Narberth’s Baptist Church of the Evangel is imminent. The church’s owner, who initially proposed converting the building to mixed-use (residential and limited commercial for his own business), now plans to raze it and construct an apartment complex in its place. The 1892 Gothic Revival church is a community landmark. It is the oldest extant church in the borough and was erected before much of Narberth was developed. Its loss will be mourned far beyond the neighborhood in which it is located. The weathered, grey stone building, which contains stained glass windows, soaring rafters, massive light pendants, and an enormous pipe organ, dates to an era when people organized their communities and their lives around neighborhood churches. That era has passed, and with it has passed the church’s value as a place of worship.
The church needs a new use, but is unlikely to get one. An ordinance that permitted expanded uses of certain borough buildings (including the church) in exchange for preservation protections was approved by the Borough Council but vetoed by the Mayor. The failure of the ordinance followed months-long discussions about the implications of allowing mixed residential and commercial use in these buildings and, by extension, in the Church of the Evangel. Many residents neighboring the 1892 building maintained that a commercial operation in the Baptist Church of the Evangel would adversely impact their community. They testified that it would introduce unwanted density and traffic to their neighborhood and that it would compromise the residential character of the surrounding streets. Other Narberth residents believed that the benefits of allowing mixed-use in these buildings exceeded the costs. They maintained that the ordinance would ensure the preservation of the church, stimulate economic investment in the business district, and enhance the community by knitting the north and south sections of Narberth together. Although a recently-adopted form-based zoning code now permits owners of certain civic and institutional buildings to convert their properties to mixed-use in exchange for preservation protections, the owner of the church property will not likely exercise this option.