On most days the First Unitarian Church seems like any of Philadelphia's religious congregational centers. The subtle and unimposing building on 22nd and Chestnut streets houses regular Sunday services, various Christian learning groups and daily child day-care. But on some nights, the church moonlights as one of the East Coast's most beloved and eccentric alt-rock venues.
"The concerts are certainly a part of the ministry of this church," says interim minister Bill Metzger. "We regard them as an important cultural contribution to the city. Providing this church as a venue for those kinds of bands and groups provides a place where young adults can go for entertainment, meet each other and have a good time in a safe situation"
The church regularly rents out its basement and sanctuary spaces to various music acts ranging from small local bands to big names in the alt-indie music world. More recently, it has played host to such acts as the Fiery Furnaces, John Vanderslice, Metric, Brazilian import Seu Jorge and Paul Green's School of Rock. The often sold-out shows attract eclectic crowds, which include straight-edge teenage punks, urban professional hipsters, and world music aficionados.
"Bands and fans are so enthusiastic in their expression of appreciation of the church to provide space," says Metzger.
The church began to open its doors to the alternative music scene in the mid '90s, when state liquor laws made it difficult for touring bands to put on all-ages shows at the more traditional small concert venues. Bands began to approach Church administrator Norman Fouhy asking to use the Church's basement to put on concerts. In 1996, the church linked up with concert promoter Sean Agnew whose r5productions, aims to put on cheap all-ages shows in the Philadelphia area. The church now works almost exclusively with Agnew in booking bands.
"Since a band would want to do an all-ages show," says Agnew, "and they couldn't do it at a club, kids took it on their own accord to do it elsewhere. That's when I became interested in doing shows at the First Unitarian Church."
Putting on over 100 concerts a year, the church venue has not only been welcomed and praised by Philly locals, but is also recognized on a national level. The Church recently hosted a four-day battle-of-the-bands attracting acts from as far away as Milwaukee and has been featured in magazines like Spin and Harpers Weekly.
According to Fouhy, the concerts fit into the Church's historically progressive policy regarding social events and issues.
"Back in the late '70s the Church made a conscious decision to open their doors to groups who would find it difficult to find spaces," he says. "And that was a deliberate part of the church's building use policy. Actions AIDS started here, WAGE [Women's Alliance for Job Equity] started here. And when these kids came to me I saw that as an extension of that policy. These groups of kids wanted to start something and couldn't find any other place to do it"