The Tragedy of Third Presbyterian

The Tragedy of Third Presbyterian

The present is the most precious thing we have, and somehow the most easily overlooked. Perhaps that lesson, above all others, is what the tragedy of Third Presbyterian can teach us. An abandoned state is not a perpetual one, though it may seem it at times, one way or another, it comes to an end. We hope that end is a bright one, with a building saved, repurposed, and reintegrated into the community. Restored in form and dignity. This, unfortunately, is a rare outcome, and more often than not, a place never returns from abandonment. Once some winters pass, and water begins to gain its way within through widening seams and failing shingle, a descending spiral of ruination follows. However, there exist those who aspire to pull these places back from the brink, to fight the decay head-on. These individuals are as admirable as they are uncommon - Knowing full well that the fight ahead of them is akin to swimming against a tempest-tossed sea, yet they willingly wade into the raging waters. They do so because they can see what yet lingers in the time-worn walls, and wish to preserve it so that others, too, may have the chance to see it. Such was the case of Third Presbyterian in Chester, Pennsylvania, and why its loss was all the more tragic.

Third Presbyterian stood at the corner of 9th and Potter since the late 1800s, small in stature but as impressive as many far larger churches. The last significant alteration to the structure was made in 1912, in the form of a classroom addition for summer bible school. And with that, Third Presbyterian remained more-or-less unchanged for the next century. The church itself functioned in its original capacity for over 100 years, with worship and various community events either related to the church or the religious school it housed, but like many other religious institutions in similar areas, the economic decline which claimed the neighborhood also claimed the church, forcing it to shutter in the 1980s. Thereafter, the building came to be used by the 'Chester Eastside Ministries' for social services, until 2013 when the organization relocated due to the deteriorating state of the building. After that point, the city of Chester began to ponder the feasibility of demolition. 

Enter the Chester HistoricalPreservation Committee, who acted quickly to interrupt any plans to demolish the magnificent church, ultimately buying it from the city for $1 in 2015 with the intent to restore and eventually reuse the structure in several roles, including a center for performing arts. A beautiful plan, as it would return music and life to the once-grand hall. And so the church was rescued, and for the first time in years, it was being celebrated for what it was, and for what it signified, as opposed to simply existing. The light was returning to Third Presbyterian, and though dim it was ever-growing brighter, aided by the efforts of Partners for Sacred Places. The years ahead finally looked to be fortunate ones. A future of growth, renewal, and transformation was just beginning. However, in the spring of 2020 disaster struck.

After being saved from the verge of abandonment, spared from demolition, and finally finding compassionate hands that endeavored to shepherd Third Presbyterian into a bright future, a five-alarm fire engulfed the building in the dead of night on May 28th, 2020. All was lost. Wasted to the ashen earth, with little remaining to proclaim what once was save for the exterior stone walls which opposed the flames. Within those walls though, emptiness. The old church has vanished in a plume of soot and ash, leaving behind a void not only on the corner of 9th and Potter, but in the hearts of the community. To close we share a quote from the Chester Historical Preservation Committee, written just days after the terrible fire -

 “Please; let our misfortune turn to your advantage. Look around your city. You do have your own 3rd Presbyterians tucked away in your forgotten neighborhoods. For if you don’t take steps today, you may find, as the city of Chester has found, that the old song is right and “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone.” I say this because, had this level of support come just one year ago, there would have been enough resources to seal 3rd Presbyterian tight enough that no arsonist could have forced their way in in the first place.

I write this on May 31st. As of now the church lies in utter ruin. Sodden charcoal a foot thick is covered by the jumble of fire ravaged timbers mixed with melted stained-glass and shattered roof tiles.

It is a depressing sight, but a Phoenix will rise from the ashes. Though the ghost of the third Presbyterian will hover forever at our shoulders, the new that is to come will, as the church before it, be a place for all good people to gather, to learn and to grow.

Stop. Now. look around you and save what you have while you still have it.”

Third Presbyterian - Stonework Facade

Stonework of timeless beauty.

Third Presbyterian - Arched Wooden Door

Third Presbyterian - Worship Hall

Third Presbyterian - Worship Hall View from Alter

Third Presbyterian - Woodwork and Master Stair

Corridor to a primary stairwell.

Third Presbyterian - Looking Down Master Stair

Third Presbyterian - Built-In Cabinetry

Built-in cabinetry of the school office.

Third Presbyterian - School Hallway

Third Presbyterian - A Lonely Office Desk

Third Presbyterian - Children's Classroom

The children's classroom/library was surprisingly intact.

Third Presbyterian - Shelves of Books

Third Presbyterian - Connected Classrooms

Third Presbyterian - School Stairwell

Third Presbyterian - Classroom Door Left Ajar

Third Presbyterian - Weather Damaged Walls

Some portions of the building suffered worse than others from the years of neglect.

Third Presbyterian - Barren Shelving

Third Presbyterian - Overgrown Window

Third Presbyterian - Beautiful Wooden Staircase

Third Presbyterian - Worship Hall and Vaulted Ceiling

Third Presbyterian - Under Overcast Skies

The following photos were captured by the Aston Twp. Fire Department on the night that Third Presbyterian was lost.