Old Third Presbyterian Church: Florence in Chester

The cleaning and restoration of the Old Third Presbyterian Church is an ongoing project for the Chester Historical Preservation Committee. This beautiful, iconic building will be the new home of CHPC and a center for the performing arts.

Chester Historical Preservation Committee
Located at 9th and Potter Sts. in Chester, Pa. This wonderful old church from the 19th Century is in trouble with Father Time.

The Church laid abandoned for 3 years before the CHPC took ownership of it.

About the Building  by the Chester Historical Preservation Committee – Shelley Ashfield

The Old Chester website (www.oldchesterpa.com) tells us that the cornerstone for this church was laid on July 11, 1895 and opening services were held on May 17, 1896.  So soon after the Panic of 1893 (many times worse than the Great Depression), which spawned the worst railroad strikes ever to hit Pennsylvania, and still, by some miracle, this mountain was raised in less than a year!


The US Civil War gave birth to a mighty logistics chain to deliver goods of all sorts – developed, tested, and perfected by the Union Army.  It was via this system – along with fortunes amassed – that the architectural treasures were built here in the Delaware Valley.  Architects Frank Furness, as well as his protégés Theophilus Chandler and Isaac Pursell raised the most memorable buildings.  What you see today is Isaac Pursell’s work.  There is some evidence of idea-swapping among Chandler and Pursell: the beautiful eight-sided, hammer-beamed roof vault of Chandler’s 1894 Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, on Broad Street near Temple University shows up in Pursell’s 1897 work, which you see here above you.

Isaac Purcell, Old Third Presbyterian Church, Chester, PA, Akron plan
Image by Susan Royce


New fortunes also financed tours to the Wonders of the Ancient World; the masses sated their curiosity for same via magic lantern or stereoscope.  To copy of the silhouette of, say, the Pantheon of Rome became all the rage for American architects to appeal to their newly-educated clients.  Pursell evoked a more “modern” theme: the red-brick egg-shaped dome and low surrounding walls of Brunellesci’s cathedral in Florence.  But instead of a dome, painstakingly stacked brick by mortared brick, this cathedral was framed in like a ship, with great iron turnbuckles within.  On a separate outer wooden frame were hung terracotta tiles manufactured by the Celadon Tile Company of Alfred, NY, hauled over 300 miles of railroad.  Some old-world craftsmanship remains: note the individual dressing marks on the ashlar stone of the exterior walls and window sills.  Chester’s Italian Presbyterians then formed their own church on Third and Fulton; they re-merged with Third Presbyterian in 1965, a half-century later.


The floor plan is American through and through.  Originally conceived to handle crowds at Chatauquas and exhibitions like the Chicago World’s Fair, The “Akron Plan” was devised in Akron, Ohio by farm-equipment inventor Henry Lewis.  Natural lighting was provided in the rotunda by a great eye-window overhead, a glassed-in version of the Roman Pantheon.  When the great wall of sliding glass windows between were hoisted up like a garage door, the two big circular spaces of the Sanctuary and Rotunda could be merged into one giant space.  The classrooms fanning out from the Rotunda, well-lighted and ventilated by banks of windows, allowed for a single rector to efficiently supervise all teachers without disturbing classes, and make public announcements from the Rotunda.    (over)

akron plan, Issac Purcell, Old third Presbyterian Church Chester, PA


The Presbyterian Church grew from church meetings held in the parlors of homes, conducted by the lady of the house.  These meetings were not confined to religious matters.  The Abolitionist Movement, the Ladies’ Temperance Movement, and Women’s Suffrage (the vote/political participation) all were part of the cultural and educational mission to perfect humankind.  This church features a lovely Ladies’ Parlor, with fireplace, deep windowsills for floral displays, and a wall of glassed-in bookcases.  It was the easiest room to clean up so far.


Author Jon M. Clayton kindly permitted the Old Chester website (www.oldchesterpa.com) to reprint his poignant, funny history of Dr. Lathem’s world-renowned Summer Bible School, written to commemorate its Diamond Anniversary, 75 years after his first class held in 1912.  It is well worth reading in its entirety.  Dr. Lathem’s only son, Lance said: “Words that best describe A.L. Lathem include, “one of the old school”, “no ordinary man”, with “qualities of Puritan discipline.”  After being sent a “50 Years Ago Today” column in the Chester Times concerning the effort by Dr. Lathem to keep the Chester Times from publishing a newspaper on the Lord’s Day(!), Lance replied:

“Yes, the newspaper clipping you enclosed surely reflected Father at his best–denouncing something. I’m afraid the Sunday newspapers are here to stay. But such difficulties never disturbed Father. He did keep out the saloon planned for Edgmont Avenue, and also put out that pharmacist who was selling booze under the counter. And Father helped a Methodist, Mr. Berry, get elected as mayor of a rum-ridden city, and later to become state treasurer. And Father did have his life threatened by the liquor interest.  Have you ever seen anybody else like him? There never was and never will be!”

Isaac Purcell, Old Third Presbyterian Church, Chester, PA, Akron plan


Times, changed, and the once-mighty congregation merged with First Presbyterian Church on 2305 Edgemont Avenue, a neo-Georgian building with a classical temple portico with columns, and a large steeple on top of the tower, like many in the Philadelphia area.  This building then became the home of Chester Eastside Ministries for years, until it was slated for demolition.  But as you can see, there never was and never will be a building like this.  So we preserve its unique and wonderful space to serve the needs of the future, and as a monument to the time when the City of Chester was the Florence of Gilded-Age America!

Isaac Purcell, Old Third Presbyterian Church, Chester, PA, Akron plan
Image by Susan Royce