The Neziner Building
771 S 2nd Street
In the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia stands the beautiful Neziner Court condominiums at 771 South Second Street and Catherine Street. From the outside, peering into this federal style building through the wrought iron gates, it is amazing to learn that this building, which dates back to 1811, has been used and reused by Baptist, Catholic and Jewish immigrant groups successively over the course of 170 years!
The Third Baptist Church was the first inhabitant of this building, a sturdy meetinghouse erected in 1811 in the Old Southwark section of Philadelphia (today it is considered Queen Village). According to Harry Boonin, author of The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia: A History and Guide, 1881-1930, the design of the majestic rounded windows on the face of the building probably dates back to the founding of the Church.
Significantly, during the Civil War, the Church became a hospital for the wounded, who were homeward-bound. Unfortunately, many did not make it home. The Church pastor attended to more than 2,000 funerals, including those who were buried right behind the Church.
Typical of immigrant communities, immigrants and working-class residents began to feel threatened with displacement by newer immigrants. By the mid-1800’s, mostly Irish immigrants settled in Southwark. The native Protestants were suspicious of their Catholic religion and competition for jobs. In fact, in 1844, three days of rioting broke out. Italians also immigrated to Southwark.
Fifty years later, the influx of foreigners in their neighborhood had caused a decrease in attendance at the Baptist Church. By 1896, members of the Third Baptist Church had been “driven from our field by foreign population” and sold their building to a new wave of immigrants. (Boonin, Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia; A History and Guide, 1881-1930, p. 112).
In 1898, The First Polish National Society of Philadelphia became the second owners of the building. In 1870, due to political and social unrest in Poland, there was a vast emigration from Poland to America. By the late 1800’s, the Old Southwark area around 2nd and Catherine was heavily populated by Polish immigrants.
Notably, the First Polish National Society of Philadelphia was a splinter group of the Roman Catholic Church. While the Society believed in Catholicism, it did not believe in the authority of the Pope or in the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. Such a dissident church was not popular with the devout Polish Roman Catholics in its surrounding neighborhood. On May 23, 1902 (just four years after buying the building), the First Polish National Society of Philadelphia defaulted on its second mortgage, forcing the Sheriff to sell the Church property.
In 1905, the Neziner Synagogue bought the building. Actually, this was the third building owned by the growing congregation. Officially, its name was Congregation Ahavas Achim-Anshe Nezin, which meant “Congregation of Friendly Sons of Nezin,” a small town in southern Russia. Fleeing to Philadelphia from persecution in Eastern Europe in the 1880’s, Jewish immigrants from Nezin banded together in 1889 to form their own synagogue charter, meeting in homes. Over the next 25 years, its membership increased significantly. Members included newer arrivals to Southwark who came from other geographical areas besides Nezin. The synagogue moved into two larger properties before settling into the property at 771 S. 2nd Street. From various accounts, the congregation’s Jewish ritual began as Orthodox, starting out as Hasidic and transitioning toward Ashkenazic to accommodate the congregants’ desires.
When renovations began to alter the church structure into a synagogue, few structural changes were made since the building had been designed expressly for church purposes and was easily convertible for synagogue use. Therefore, when renovations were completed, the building (including the sanctuary) remained virtually the way it looked in 1811.
On the second floor, the principal entrance one flight up through the western wall was retained, thus permitting the Jewish Holy Ark to be placed in its traditional eastern locations. The original east wall was torn down, and a new east wall was attached to the building for the Jewish Holy Ark, into which Holy Torahs were placed in what was called the Sanctuary. The Sanctuary could seat 800 worshippers. The pews, doors, floor, and the entire rear portion of the Sanctuary were unchanged. The church’s large crystal chandelier in the center of the ceiling of the main sanctuary was replaced with a brass crystal chandelier.
Significantly, the Baptist Church’s crucifix on the roof was removed. On the ground floor, the Baptist Church vestry rooms were transformed into rooms for synagogue weekday services and meeting places.
The Baptist Church’s graves at the rear and on the sides of the building were opened; the bodies were disinterred and reburied elsewhere. The resulting lot in the back was used as a play yard and the south side plot of ground was used for a sukkah (a fall festival temporary hut covered with branches, which commemorates the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness). The front Courtyard was put to great use by offering botanical splendor.
Following WWI, Jewish neighborhood residents prospered and moved to newer parts of the city, such as Strawberry Mansion, Logan, Wynnefield and West Philadelphia. The remaining members were “less affluent men, sort of old guard conservative men who refused to accept any changes for Conservative Judaism, or programs for youth or women.” (Kraftsow, History of the Neziner Synagogue). Physically, the building fell into a state of disrepair with an unpaid mortgage. Membership declined. The familiar pattern of community shifts recurred: some immigrants succeed and move away, leading to remaining longer-term residents’ disgruntlement and synagogue decline.
Fortunately, during the Depression, the synagogue experienced a rebirth under the leadership of Isaac Schreider, a new member who lived in the neighborhood. He was considered a man of vision who cleverly fundraised from former members who had moved away from the synagogue in the 1920’s. Under his leadership, the Synagogue was remodeled significantly. Also, a Sisterhood was formed and flourished for many years. In addition, Neziner adapted to changing times by introducing more modern Conservative services, programs appealing to young people, English in prayers, and allowing women to sit with men on the main floor of the Sanctuary.
Just prior to WWII, Dr. John Craig Roak, the Minister of Old Swedes’ Church, located nearby, began interfaith services with the Neziner congregation. Although interfaith services continued for years, they could not prevent the ongoing trend of wealthier congregants emigrating to the suburbs. In the post-WWII era, attendance and membership declined at Neziner Synagogue.
Furthermore, initiated by Mayor Dilworth and growing throughout the 1960’s-1970’s, the city of Philadelphia began the process of gentrification of Society Hill, a neighborhood bordering on Queen Village. Gradually, young families moved into the gentrified neighborhood, and the Society Hill Synagogue experienced dramatically increasing membership, which continues to this day. This bode poorly for Neziner Synagogue and its aging membership.
By 1983, only 50 families were left. Neziner was sold to and absorbed by Beth Zion Beth Israel Synagogue at 18th and Spruce Streets in Center City Philadelphia, where its Ark doors and other artifacts are now kept.
Today, the Neziner Court Condominiums occupy the building. A straightforward structure, the building was converted into eight residential units in 1985. It remains set off from the street as it was years ago by a courtyard and wrought iron fence.
In 2013, Hidden City Philadelphia, an online publication that explores obscure yet captivating heritage and architectural sites, named Neziner building among the Top 10 sacred buildings in Philadelphia to be used for other, non-religious purposes.
This local honor, combined with a distinguished listing in 1958 as a National Historical Landmark by the National Preservation for Historical Landmarks (when it was Neziner Synagogue), highlights the uniquely rich, weaving story about these three immigrant communities (Baptist, Polish Catholic, Jewish) adapting and readapting to life at the Neziner Building at 771 S. Second Street in Queen Village.