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The Church of the Transfiguration

Originally a humble wooden chapel built on a parcel of farmland in 1905, the Church of the Transfiguration's parish flourished to such a degree that a new building was constructed. The lower church was built for the parishioners in 1925 and the upper church was finished in 1928. Capable of seating over 2,500 people, it was one of the biggest and most magnificent churches in Philadelphia, but by the 1970s demographics had shifted in the neighborhood around it and it was eventually closed in 2000.

After its closing it was purchased by conman Raffaello Follieri, a con artist who was supposedly going to use inside connections to buy churches from the Vatican for low prices and rehabilitate them into community centers. Instead, he used investors' money to live a lavish lifestyle with his girlfriend at the time, actress Anne Hathaway. He had no inside connections and lost bids on all other churches he tried to purchase, save for three. Transfiguration was one of them, and sat abandoned for roughly a decade. When it was resold in 2009 after Follieri's imprisonment, the buyers (The Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School), only wanted the school and very quickly demolished the church and rectory before any opposition could be mounted from the community. It is currently an empty lot and the majority of the building was dumped in a landfill.

Photographing the Church of the Transfiguration was something that almost didn't happen. I had heard about it a few years prior, but it was sealed up by the time I was able to go. When I heard that it was open again, I made a point to visit Philadelphia to see it, on the 4th of July no less. There was a stairwell that led down to an entrance to the lower church that was open, and when I went in I was quickly overwhelmed by the majesty of the place - it was the true definition of sublime. Because my time was limited I had to choose between shooting both the church and the rectory or focusing entirely on the church. I chose the latter and am so glad that I did.

Even after all I've written about the Church of the Transfiguration in this gallery, it's hard to articulate what it meant to me. There are some places I photograph that I am indifferent to, others that I like for various reasons - but Transfiguration was one that I genuinely loved. The details in the craftsmanship were so exquisite, and it was sickening to think that it was just left there. I remember when I was about to leave I was having a hard time figuring out which door I came in by, and was in the darkened area in the lower church. someone came in, and I froze in the shadows, knowing they would not be able to see me. It was some seemingly drug-addled person who wondered into one of the back rooms and started urinating in a corner. I decided it was a good time to leave, but the disrespectfulness of it aggravated me.

As I mentioned to a friend plans to return a month or so later, he told me that they were abating it for demolition. I was horrified, but he was correct. With a terrible swiftness, they tore into the building. A local salvage company managed to get a few small trinkets out before it was torn down but the carvings, the limestone, the incredible tile work (which would fetch a good price, most likely) - were all summarily bulldozed and tossed in a landfill like trash. Even though a friend of mine who is a college president who has experience with (and can fund) architectural salvage on a larger scale wanted to save the pillars, the demolition teams ignored his calls. It was better, apparently, to destroy it than to do anything at all to acknowledge what had once been such an important part of so many lives.

Pondering on the loss of landmark buildings and the cheapening of society with throwaway architecture that replaces it, the ruminations on the wasteful nature of our society come easily. Some people think it cliched and trite to mourn our current state. I would submit that such people are a large part of the problem. The loss is very real. If you see a place like this, and really feel it in your heart and know what it means to so many, there can be no other reaction but grief when it is lost. One day there will be a small fast food joint or a bank on this corner, or maybe it will remain a vacant lot, but Transfiguration lives on in the hearts of the many who knew her.

Photographs and text by Matthew Christopher. For more images click the thumbnails below. If you'd like to learn more about this location, it is a featured chapter in the new Abandoned America book Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences. Signed copies are available through my website, or you can find (unsigned) copies available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other online booksellers across the globe.
mysterium fascinans portfolio Photos Taken: July 2009
Camera Used: Olympus Evolt 510
Last Updated: November 2009
The Church of the Transfiguration Historical Photos portfolio