McDowell Memorial Presbyterian Church

The McDowell Memorial Presbyterian Church, which later became the home of the Macedonia Free Will Baptist Church, is a historic, now abandoned church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It stands out for its distinctive Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style and its theater-like, auditorium-style sanctuary.


After the American Civil War, Philadelphia underwent rapid industrialization, leading to significant population growth fueled by both native-born Americans and immigrants. 10 This influx of people transformed the city’s landscape, as the large estates and farms in the city’s northern areas were quickly replaced with streets and subdivided properties. Local churches capitalized on this expansion by establishing missionary branches in the newly forming neighborhoods.

In 1868, John McDowell, a Presbyterian minister originally from New Jersey and an alumnus of the College of New Jersey (which later became Princeton University), arrived in Philadelphia. He took up leadership roles at the Central Presbyterian Church in Center City 1 and, previously in 1846, had organized the Spring Garden Presbyterian Church located on 11th Street, north of Spring Garden Street. 1 2

The Sunday School Association of the Spring Garden Presbyterian Church initiated a mission Sunday School in 1868, utilizing an existing building on Nicholas Street near Ridge Avenue and 22nd Street. 1 10 This school was named the McDowell Sabbath School of Philadelphia in tribute to McDowell, who had passed away five years earlier. The first services at the school were held in 1869, and a fundraising campaign was launched among the city’s Presbyterian churches to finance the construction of a new church associated with the Sunday School.

Henry Augustus Sims, a local architect, was commissioned in 1870 by the Spring Garden Presbyterian to design a brownstone chapel on the Sunday School’s site. 1 10 Initially named the Columbia Avenue Presbyterian Church, this ashlar brownstone building boasted stained glass windows crafted by John and George H. Gibson, who were of Scottish descent. The chapel underwent an expansion in 1876. 3 10

In 1882, the Columbia Avenue Presbyterian took in the declining membership of the Fairmount Presbyterian Church. 1 4 10 This consolidation was followed by a merger in 1891 with the Spring Garden congregation, resulting in the formation of the McDowell Memorial Presbyterian Church.

New Sanctuary

By the 1890s, the congregation of 350 members had outgrown its sanctuary, which was designed to accommodate significantly fewer people. 1 In response, the congregation raised $4,000 to construct a larger building. Architect J. William Shaw from Wayne, Pennsylvania, was commissioned in the fall of 1891 to design the new church. He chose the Richardsonian Romanesque style for its design, featuring a sanctuary with a theater-like auditorium layout. 1 10

Construction of the new church began in June 1892, 1 6 7 following the groundbreaking on October 2, 1891. 5 The building was completed by September 1893 and officially dedicated on October 2 of the same year. 1 6 7 The dedication ceremony extended into the weekend. This expanded church boasted an exterior of ashlar granite from Port Deposit, Maryland, with limestone trim from Indiana. Its interior was adorned with stained glass windows from the Tiffany Glass Company, woodwork in quarter-sawn oak, an open-timber roof, semi-circular pews accommodating up to 800 worshippers, and electric lighting.

The church’s original sanctuary, dating back to around 1870, was repurposed as a Sunday School. 1

By the time of the Great Depression, the area around Columbia Avenue Presbyterian had predominantly become an African-American neighborhood, and most of the white members of McDowell Memorial Presbyterian had moved to other parts of the region. 1 10 In 1936, the congregation sought permission from the Philadelphia Presbytery to dissolve. The following year, in 1937, the church property was transferred to the McDowell Memorial Community Presbyterian Church Sunday School Mission to serve the local African-American community.

Macedonia Freewill Baptist Church

By the 1950s, McDowell Memorial Community Presbyterian Church experienced a decline in its congregation numbers, a trend driven by the rapid suburbanization of Philadelphia following World War II. 10 This movement depleted the inner city of its population and churchgoers. In May 1954, the property was acquired by the trustees of the Macedonia Freewill Baptist Church, which held its first Sunday services there in June 1961.

The neighborhood faced further challenges with the launch of former Philadelphia Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative in 2001. 1 This $295 million initiative was aimed at revitalizing the area through the mass acquisition and demolition of neglected buildings and the development of new low-rise residential projects. 9 However, the project did not meet its intended outcomes due to leadership failures and a lack of private-sector investment, leading to a significant decrease in the local population.

Burdened by high maintenance costs for the building and a dwindling congregation, Macedonia Freewill Baptist Church put the church complex on the market in August 2018. The original 1870 chapel collapsed partially in early 2020 and was subsequently demolished. The bell tower was also significantly reduced in size because of structural concerns.



  1. Cooperman, Emily T. McDowell Memorial Presbyterian Church. National Register of Historic Places, 2013.
  2. “City Intelligence.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 Feb. 1863, p. 4.
  3. “Religious.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 Oct. 1876, p. 86.
  4. Hammonds, Kenneth A. Historical Directory of Presbyterian Churches and Presbyteries of Greater Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1973, pp. 73-4.
  5. Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, vol. 6, no. 41, 14 Oct. 1891.
  6. “The Local Market.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 Apr. 1892.
  7. White, Wm. P. and William H. Scott. The Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Allen, Lane & Scott, 1895, p. 83.
  8. “Rededicated to God’s Service.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Oct. 1893.
  9. McGovern, Stephen J. Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative: A Case Study of Mayoral Leadership, Bold Planning, and Conflict. 3rd ed., vol. 17, Fannie Mae Foundation, 2008.
  10. Lambert, Amy. Columbia Avenue Presbyterian Church; McDowell Memorial Presbyterian Church. Philadelphia Historical Commission, 2019.

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Hi Sherman, do you do any tours of abandoned places? I am interested in particular vignettes for an art project but have zero idea about exploring or even finding abandoned places. Thank you

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