Matthias Baldwin: Church Builder

Matthias W. Baldwin (179-1866) was a clever and hard-working businessman who built the Baldwin Locomotive Works (BLW) into the largest locomotive factory in the world, at its peak in 1900 providing employment to 18,000 of Philadelphia's citizens. Factories in our neighborhood that supported the work done at BLW employed thousands more. In these days of corporation bashing, beneficence is not the first word associated with the idea that a person starts a business from nothing; builds a product needed by the public; and gives a livelihood to thousands to feed and house their families. Job creation is beneficence.

Many successful business persons, don't stop with just job creation. Matthias Baldwin became involved with the community to further enrich it. He helped start the Franklin Institute in 1834 to give more formal technical training to his workers. He was an abolitionist who started a school for colored children, using the vernacular of the time, and subsidized the teachers' salaries. His greatest interest was in strengthening the spiritual core of the community, and in that effort he devoted time and significant financial resources. Here are a few of them. None of these buildings are in the current Baldwin Park neighborhood, but all were prominent buildings in Philadelphia, and two still exist. The West Green Street Presbyterian Church at 19th and Green Street, built in 1860, is in our neighborhood, under a different sect, but this seems not to have been funded by Baldwin. Much of the information for this article was condensed from a 237-page 1867 memorial to Matthias Baldwin and from the 1895 311-page book The Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.

Frontispiece from the 1895 book The Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia
Matthias Baldwin is pictured in lower right.

Matthias W. Baldwin was raised a Presbyterian but had been relatively apathetic, although he did attend services and was a teacher in the Sabbath School at the First Presbyterian Church on Washington Square. A religious awakening in his late 30's, an awakening brought on by a family tragedy, increased his devotion to the church. He had married a distant cousin, Sarah Crane Baldwin, in 1824. The next year they had a daughter, Mary Louisa, followed by a newborn death of a daughter in 1826, the surviving of another daughter in 1828, and then the loss of at least two sons shortly after birth. Another son, Hampden, was born in 1833 and was the joy of Matthias' life, but the child died of the croup in 1835. In the patriarchal business society of his time, not having a son to turn the business over to was devastating.

 

He turned to charitable works to deal with his grief. In the alley behind his house at 160 South 10th Street he was used to encountering illiterate black children. He funded a school for these children, paying rent and teacher salaries for years. His greatest charitable work was in the spiritual domain. His first large contribution to the Presbytery in Philadelphia was made to save the Cedar Street Presbyterian Church from a sheriff's sale. In 1851 he contributed $10,000 (with 30-fold inflation adjustment, the equivalent of $300,000 today) for the construction of a Gothic building at 15th and Locust Streets. In 1870 a smaller Gothic chapel was built across the street. Both have since been demolished.

 

His liked to name churches after Biblical hills, and his being the biggest contribution, he had naming rights: Calvary Presbyterian Church. I suppose he could have included his name in the church name, as was done with the Disston Memorial Church in Tacony in 1886, or is done ad nauseum today with competing philanthropists who insist on centuries old institutions being renamed for them, but Matthias W. Baldwin was a modest man. The name Calvary, the hill in Jerusalem on which Christ was crucified, would do.

Baldwin always intended that any church he supported would start off with no debt: the land, building, and furnishings would be paid off when the church opened. With this start, he expected that income derived from church activities and pew rents would go towards the establishment of new Sunday schools and churches, especially in the neediest communities. The Calvary Church established a Sunday school for such a community at 24th and Fairmount Avenue in 1855, and growth required a bigger building and church. In 1856, funded mostly by Baldwin, the Olivet Presbyterian Church was established in a chapel and lecture room at the southwest corner of 22nd and Wallace Streets. Even more space was soon needed, and a gift of $20,000 from Baldwin helped erect the larger connecting church at the northwest corner of 22nd and Mount Vernon Street. This seated 1200. In 1896 the original chapel at the southwest corner of 22nd and Wallace Streets was replaced with a new chapel and Sabbath School. A storm in 1945 blew the roof off the church building, resulting in the whole church building being condemned (can you use that word about a church?). The chapel part of the two building complex was refitted with a sanctuary and still exists. For more on Olivet Church see the outside link here.

Photo from the southeast in 1895 showing the church in foreground and the chapel behind. Baldwin had originally offered a piece of land he owned, valued at $6,000, at 24th and Spring Garden Streets for the church site. The block at 22nd and Washington Streets (the latter now Mount Vernon), owned by the heirs of Robert Morris, was purchased after selling off the Baldwin property. According to descriptions at the time, one could look east from the 22nd Street site and see 'nothing for half a mile."
By the way, when the City consolidated with the County of Philadelphia in 1854, there was one too many Washington Streets in the new City. The Fairmount Washington Street was changed to Mount Vernon Street, still honoring our first president. Washington Avenue, a much bigger street in South Philadelphia, kept the name.
Sunday finest for Sunday school in 1914.
This is the second chapel building, finished in 1896, and the current church building.
Due to the Fairmount Parkway planned demolitions, the Covenant Church congregation at 22nd and Callowhill Streets merged with and moved to the Olivet Church in 1908.
The chapel, now church, at 22nd and Wallace Streets.
2020 photo of the current Olivet Church building.
The dates above the entrance mark the first Sunday school in 1855 and the construction of this building, the second chapel building, in 1895.

In 1857 a chapel was erected for $7,500 at the southeast corner of 17th and Fitzwater Streets on land donated by one of the seven B's of the Presbyterian Church, John Brown. Within just a year, this Sunday school and chapel was overcrowded. This time Baldwin provided $22,000 to fund the entire enterprise of building a church at 18th and Christian Streets, with the cornerstone dedicated by his daughter Cecelia Baldwin in 1863, and named Tabor Presbyterian Church. The church seated 800. It has since been demolished.

Sketch from here of the Tabor Presbyterian Church in 1863, at the southwest corner of Christian and 18th Streets.
Though the church at 18th and Christian was demolished, the original 1857 Sunday school building still stands, as seen in this June 2020 photo. Known originally as the Tabor Chapel, it still occupies the southeast corner of 17th and Fitzwater Streets. The lower floor was the Sunday School. The upper story was the church. See 2017 article from Inga Saffron here for more history of this building.

When Baldwin moved his factory to Broad and Hamilton Streets in 1835, that area was considered "suburban." Within two decades the area was teeming with row homes for the thousands of workers and their families. By 1857 Baldwin saw the need for another church, this time in the neighborhood of BLW. He organized a few of his wealthy Christian friends to fund the construction of a church at Broad and Green Streets, adjoining the south side of the current Rodeph Shalom synagogue. Within a decade there were 450 members and 400 in the Sabbath School. Thomas Potter, who owned the oil-cloth factory in the old Bush Hill mansion, was elected one of the two Ruling Elders.

Photo from 1895. Demolished around 1943.
The Rodeph Shalom Synagogue, designed in the Moorish Revival style by Frank Furness and built in 1866, is to the left in this photo. The current synagogue was built in 1928, or as the cornerstone says, 5688 in the Hebrew dating.
On the right is the second building of the Central High School for Boys, built in 1853.

Baldwin had proposed the name Carmel for the church at Broad and Green Streets, but this was vetoed by the congregation. He then applied that name to a chapel and Sunday school at the northeast corner of Broad and Oxford Streets, a church to which he had contributed $8,000. When the church itself was completed in 1869, three years after Baldwin's death, the name was changed to Oxford Presbyterian Church (What's everybody got against the name Carmel?). Both of these churches have since been demolished. The Oxford Presbyterian Church was demolished around 1970 to be replaced by the Temple University Services Building, which itself was replaced by Temple's 27-story Morgan Hall in 2013.

In 1862 Baldwin purchased a lot at the corner of Frankford and Harrison Streets in the neighborhood where he had been a teen-aged jeweler's apprentice. A chapel was built here during his lifetime, but the church was funded by his estate after his death in 1866. This was named the Hermon Presbyterian Church. One building, the chapel, still exists, housing the Pathway Evangelistic Church. The tradition of philanthropic Presbyterianism would be carried on by John Wanamaker, who funded a portion of the Bethany Presbyterian Church at 22nd and Bainbridge Streets, finished in 1874 at a total cost of $214,000.

The chapel, now church, at Frankford and Harrison Streets.

For Bible aficionados, here is a tabulation of the names of hills that Baldwin applied to the churches:

  •   Calvary: hill on which Christ was crucified

  •   Olivet: adjectival form of Mount Olive, in the Old and New testaments, site of Ascension of Jesus 

  •   Tabor: Old Testament battle site and site of transfiguration of Christ in the New Testament

  •   Carmel: Old testament site of Elijah's throwdown with the prophets of Baal

  •   Hermon: southern limit of Promised Land in Joshua, southern slope is Golan Heights

  •   Enon or Aenon: spring flowing from this hill was the site of the baptism of Christ

And for you accounting aficionados, here is a financial statement:

  • Calvary: $10,000

  • Olivet: $26,000

  • Tabor: $22,000

  • Broad and Green: unspecified

  • Carmel: $8,000

  • Hermon: unspecified

That sums to $66,000 plus  probably another $34,000 or so for the two unspecified amounts, in total rounding to $100,000 then or $3 million in today's dollars.

One other Presbyterian church in the Baldwin Park neighborhood deserves mention.

 

The West Green Street Presbyterian Church at 19th and Green Street, built in the 1860's, does not appear to have been funded by Baldwin. I mention it here because it was originally a Presbyterian Church, the biblical site after which it is named is sometimes called Mount Enon, and it is in remarkably good shape compared to other churches of the era.

Enon Baptist Church at the northeast corner of 19th and Green Streets in 2020.
I don't know when architects figured out that tall spires are beautiful, but short-lived.
Otherwise, the building is intact and wonderfully maintained.
authored by Joe Walsh

Matthias Baldwin Park 

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