Philadelphia property with a past goes on auction block

Six-acre former home of the Church of Bible Understanding: Yours for $4.5 million.
Six-acre former home of the Church of Bible Understanding: Yours for $4.5 million. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 01, 2013

Even by the standards of eBay, where you can buy a shark embryo or lunch at Disneyland with former supermodel Kathy Ireland, the West Philadelphia property is an oddity. It's a former Baptist orphanage now owned by the Church of Bible Understanding, a group parodied on Seinfeld that is selling the six acres and 10 rundown buildings it once called home.

All this can be yours for $4.5 million, according to an ad for the property on the online auction site.

Did we mention the swimming pool? And the basketball court?

"ENTIRE CITY BLOCK, 6 ACRES, 10 BUILDINGS!" reads the headline on the eBay ad. "Fenced in property." "Very private - like a little oasis in the heart of Philadelphia."

The property's owner is very private, too. Requests for interviews with officials of the Church of Bible Understanding, based in Scranton, went unanswered. A bearded man cleaning out a building at the property in the 1300 block of South 58th Street, near Cobbs Creek Park, politely asked an Inquirer reporter to leave. The seller on eBay, all7r1, did not respond to requests for more information.

But the church is hardly unknown. Many publications have written about the group and its founder, Stewart Traill, a former vacuum cleaner salesman who called himself a prophet and attracted followers to his church starting in the 1970s.

Many members have since left, describing the church as a cult that lured people in with the hope of Christian salvation and stories of missionary work in Haiti, only to force them to live in cramped, dirty quarters that they shared with rodents.

In April 1995, Philadelphia police raided the group's headquarters on South 58th Street after a 16-year-old from Brooklyn said she had been held there against her will. Police took eight girls, ages 14 to 17, into custody and called their parents. But the girls told police they were OK, and their parents said they knew their children had been staying there.

The group had moved its world headquarters to Philadelphia from New York in 1978. In 1982, four of its members - whom the church calls "lambs" - were convicted in Common Pleas Court of beating Traill's then-12-year-old son with a belt and a board after he supposedly stole an item from a hobby shop.

In 1985, a Manhattan judge ordered the church to stop taking in homeless children and putting them to work in its carpet-cleaning business, where they allegedly earned $10 a week.

The carpet-cleaning business, Christian Bros., was the inspiration for a 1996 Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza hires a cleaning company known to be a cult and then is offended when the crew doesn't try to get him to join.

In recent years, the church has maintained a lower profile. Its main business now is Olde Good Things, a salvage operation with three locations in Manhattan, two in Los Angeles, and one in Scranton. Olde Good Things calls itself "The Place of the Architecturologists" and sells high-end items from old mansions, churches, and other properties that company employees clear out. Its website features musical stained-glass doors and other items from La Ronda, the Bryn Mawr mansion demolished in 2009.

For many years, the church made its primary home at the West Philadelphia property, though no one appears to have lived there for many years. Shades in windows were falling down and ratty. A toilet stood amid other junk outside one of the buildings. On Thursday, two trucks bearing the Olde Good Things logo sat in the parking lot.

City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell and State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.), who both represent the Cobbs Creek area, greeted the news that the property was for sale positively. Charter schools and other organizations had expressed interest in buying the site but could never get answers from the owner, they said. Blackwell said she had worried over the years about whether teenagers who sometimes lived there were being treated properly.

"You just didn't know what was going on," she said.

The site began as a Baptist orphanage in 1885, according to the ad. The campus resembles an elementary school. It is a series of redbrick buildings, most built in the 1950s and '60s. The oldest dates to 1929. The largest building is 14,600 square feet and includes a commercial kitchen and chapel.


Contact Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520, hillmb@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @miriamhill.

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