Two novice rehabbers and their team transformed a historic Philadelphia church into a conversation-starting boutique hotel and community space.
Call it baptism by fire, renovation-style. On paper, Everett Abitbol and Shannon Maldonado would seem to have no business turning a vacant—and crumbling—church near downtown Philadelphia into a boutique hotel and event space. He’s a spreadsheet kind of guy who owned a fleet of taxicabs. As Abitbol puts it, “I’m a Jew from Brooklyn, so owning a church was never on my radar.” Maldonado cut her teeth in fashion in New York City before returning home to Philly to figure out her post-corporate life, which ended up being a pop-up home goods shop that has morphed into her fledgling creative and design brand, YOWIE.
But what the two acquaintances initially lacked in renovation and interior design cred they made up for in vision and drive. Their crash course in adaptive reuse kept the doors open—and shored up a collapsing exterior wall—at the historic First African Baptist Church.
Renamed the Deacon, the 1906 Gothic Revival structure is now a hip eight-room Airbnb-style hotel designed for group travel and events. Depending on the day, overnight guests may be grabbing breakfast in the sanctuary, which has been stripped of pews and turned into an airy common area, or families may gather for a wedding. Or there could be a yoga class going on, or preschoolers performing a program for their parents.
“I feel like we’re this Mad Libs of a space,” Abitbol says, meaning anyone can fill in the blanks to create their own story or experience for the place.
Credit for that, he says, goes to Maldonado. Although Abitbol and their two other cofounders brought her on for her interior design, she ended up expanding their thinking of what the place could be. “She was our North Star,” he says. “It felt foggy for us at times, but it seemed that Shannon always had a light to guide us. Her imprint is on everything we’ve done.”
“We took a leap of faith without even putting together that this concept would work in the church.”—Everett Abitbol
From an interiors standpoint, Maldonado’s goal was to spark life in the converted spaces without muting original details such as stained-glass windows and gold detailing on the cathedral arches. “It was about taking some of the elements that would remind you it was an old church but then bringing it into the future,” she says. “In the past, hotels were about grandeur and fancy light fixtures and fountains. This one is approachable. It has this inviting, cozy, almost apartment feel.”
Teal walls visually warm the high-ceiling spaces, furnishings are minimal and modern, and artwork is cheeky and offbeat, starting with a big white gorilla in the front entrance. There are plants and artsy books that Maldonado personally curated. “I have a sense of humor about art and life in general, so we said, ‘Let’s put conversation pieces in each space and see what happens.’ ”
With such a large undertaking, especially for first-timers, there were hiccups along the way. Maldonado learned on the fly about proportion, scale, and timing—and endured some good-natured ribbing from the team when light fixtures she’d ordered arrived too late, too small, or just not right.
She credits the fast-paced and pressure-filled fashion industry she left with helping her transition to interiors: “This is a version of that, but with furniture.” Both Maldonado and Abitbol say the finished space still makes them emotional when they walk through. “We truly feel like stewards of the building and hope this iteration of it is something the former congregation and community embrace,” Abitbol says. Adds Maldonado, “I have such love for this space. I’m always going to be the Deacon auntie.”
By Jody Garlock | Photographs by Winnie Au