Digging into History
“My favorite part of the Zion Baptist project was learning more about Reverend Leon Sullivan,” says Cowing. Sullivan, also known as the “Lion of Zion”, gained national and international recognition as a leader in human and civil rights movements. He expanded opportunities for education, entrepreneurship, and employment for African Americans and authored the Global Sullivan Principles, a code of human rights that played an integral role in ending Apartheid in South Africa.
“Zion Baptist Church and its Annex are located at North Broad and Venango Streets. Our work focused on the Annex,” says Cowing. “As its community programs grew under Sullivan’s leadership, Zion purchased the “Annex”, a former Presbyterian church directly across the street from the main church building.”
The current Zion Baptist Church was built in the 1970s, after a fire destroyed the original church building. Standing at his temporary pulpit in the Annex the Sunday after the fire, Reverend Sullivan announced, “Thank God for this glorious opportunity to build something for the greater glory of God… a bigger, better Zion.”
Standing at his temporary pulpit in the Annex the Sunday after the fire, Reverend Sullivan announced, “Thank God for this glorious opportunity to build something for the greater glory of God… a bigger, better Zion.”
“He vowed that the building would be designed by an African American architect and built by African American contractors,” says Cowing “As far as contractors, Zion had to actually create their own contracting company because there just weren’t any African American contracting companies of that magnitude.”
Assessing the Annex
“My work focused on the Annex, a former Presbyterian church directly across the street from the main church building,” says Cowing.
The Annex was built in the 1910s and had a major addition in the 1920s. "The sanctuary is a unique space—two stories high with beautiful stained glass, classical plaster columns, a dome, and an interesting octagonal roof.” Cowing adds, “The main entrance is on the corner, which is also unusual. Right now, the sanctuary is only accessible from a shared side entrance. When the new design comes into play, this will become a prominent entrance again.”
Cowing crawled up on roofs and inspected masonry, standard fare in her business. “The Annex has some bad roofs, a lot of water infiltration, and deteriorated stained glass… all pretty common to buildings of this age,” she says. “When the previous congregation did the addition in the 1920s, they also made an addition to the tower and didn’t do it very elegantly. The points where the new tower is supported are where it’s leaking. The [original] tower… was decorative, by making it less so they were trying to modernize it.”
Design team leader Studio 6MM was able to assure the congregation that the Annex could be fixed, thanks to input from Cowing as well as Keast & Hood Structural Engineers, Burns Engineering, and International Consultants. Refocusing them on the building's “good bones” and history of the building changed the conversation about its future.
Refocusing the congregation on the building's “good bones” and history of the building changed the conversation about its future.
“The reuse of the Sunday School classrooms for education was a given. It just makes sense. The sanctuary is actually one of the challenges," says Cowing. "Every single window is beautiful stained glass. One of the ideas is to turn the sanctuary into a grocery store. A grocery store with this elaborate stained glass might seem pretty odd, but one of the architects had just been to Italy and had seen exactly that.”
Appreciating a Legacy
“Reverend Sullivan was such an amazing man," Cowing says. "Martin Luther King, Jr. used Sullivan’s ideas [for his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom]. Many of the people we were working with knew Sullivan. That’s one of the reasons they felt so strongly that they wanted to use the Annex to reintegrate similar kinds of programs back into the community.”
“I can’t believe there hasn’t been more focus on these two church buildings. There’s no question that the Zion Baptist Church and Annex could be on the National Register of Historic Places.”
“I can’t believe there hasn’t been more focus on these two church buildings. There’s no question that the Zion Baptist Church and Annex could be on the National Register of Historic Places," she adds. Plans to pursue designation is one of the outcomes of the Sacred Places/Civic Spaces initiative.
A New Practice
After many years of experience in architecture and historic preservation, Cowing established Kate Cowing Architect, LLC last year. “I want the focus of the firm to be on rehab of existing buildings and historic preservation.
"I like nothing better than going up on the roof and attic of a church, but at the same time, I don’t mind a little residential! One of my main projects this last year was designing a second story addition on a small Cape Cod house in Chestertown, MD. It was so much fun working with the existing building and figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up... It’s important to keep our heritage, and I don’t mean specifically historic buildings. Any existing building that’s sound enough to be reused.”
"It’s important to keep our heritage, and I don’t mean specifically historic buildings. Any existing building that’s sound enough to be reused."
Cowing’s perspective on preservation has also been shaped by New Mexico, bringing a unique point of view to her local portfolio. “My parents moved to Santa Fe and lived there for 30 years, so it became pretty much my second home. New Mexico is where you have a serious sense of place. It reads in a very different way. It brings that sense that we are minute things on this giant planet and we need to care for what we have…That’s kind of what I feel about preservation here in Philadelphia too. We have to care for what we have. …These buildings are our heritage, they’re our people, and we need to take care of them.
"The Santa Fe area is such a magical area. When you’re there, you’re really drawn to the earth… I feel very strongly that our heritage, including the earth, is very, very important. We can’t just keep demolishing things because it will take away our sense of place.”