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Deep in the past, open to the future — Christ Church’s Neighborhood House


[Thom Fox Parry joins Artblog as a guest writer for this post! Learn about Christ Church, a long-loved but sometimes overlooked historical gem in the heart of Old City. — the Aartblog editors]

Longstanding social mission

woman smiling
Abigail Guay, Managing Director, Christ Church Neighborhood House.

Abigail Guay is waiting on a vision.

Newly hired as the Managing Director of Christ Church’s Neighborhood House, Guay is reaching out to Philadelphia’s artists to see how they, the city’s artists, and the historic institution can flourish together.

She’s in the right spot. Christ Church’s white spire rises straight from the cobblestoned heart of Old City’s art district, and the Neighborhood House, tucked deeper into the block, has quietly drawn the eyes of First Friday-goers for decades.

Christ Church Neighborhood House
The Great Hall of Christ Church Neighborhood House.

But the history of the site runs deeper than Old City’s life as a gallery hub. The history of Christ Church runs right to the birth of the Episcopalian Church, the city of Philadelphia, and our nation.

George Washington, Betsy Ross, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams all bowed their heads at Christ Church. And just as these revolutionaries broke from England, Christ Church provided the site at which the Episcopalian church broke from the Church of England, albeit in a gentler, less musket-ball-ridden manner. By the early 20th century, however, the area had fewer philosophies and bishops. Sweatshops and their attendant poverty crowded the blocks around the church.

In response, Christ Church opened the Neighborhood House to offer food, education, recreation, and healthcare to the struggling denizens of the area. The impact of the Church’s social mission is written into the building, literally; on the underside of a tub installed in 1933, the plumber, one L. Volpe, wrote, “This work kept two men from starving.”

Centuries of history, and room for more

Christ Church Neighborhood House
The fourth floor of Christ Church Neighborhood House.

“The site is so quirky, specific, and entrenched with hundreds of years of history,” Guay says, but artists interested in the space for performance or installations needn’t respond directly to that history. The history will find its own way in. Take the fourth floor’s theater; 1812 Productions is running a show on Jackie Gleason. They’ve arranged the rigging above and brought the smell of the stage’s fresh-cut lumber, yet the old brick walls and basketball hoops infuse the production with the lived history of the place.

Below the theater is the “Great Hall,” an undiscovered venue for Philadelphia’s art community. Like any good gallery, it’s full of light; the floor is wide and the ceilings are tall. However, the portraits of stern-looking Episcopalian luminaries that hang across from the windows lend the room the personality of a sui generis space.

The challenge of Guay’s job is opening the unique history of Neighborhood House to local artists. She began her academic life as a student of history. Within the big context of nations, eras, and war, she realized that “Artists were able to say things I was never able to consider before. Artists were telling the best stories.” This revelation, along with past experiences of art programming in Seattle and New York, have affirmed her conviction to let the community and its artists take the lead. The site’s identity will grow with them.

Thomas Fox Parry is a writer living in West Philadelphia with his wife and sons.