Century-old stained glass windows and other items stolen from North Philly mansion

It’s not your typical target for a burglar, but at least these crooks have taste.

Rare remnants of intersecting Philadelphia histories were unceremoniously removed recently from the home they have occupied for more than a century. The Philadelphia Police Department and FBI are currently investigating a burglary at the former Disston Mansion on North 16th Street, where two eight-foot-tall stained glass windows and a brass lamp fixture were recently stolen.

The mansion, which currently belongs to the Unity Mission Church founded by Father Divine, is catalogued in the Library of Congress’ Historic American Buildings Survey.

Police believe the burglary took place in the early morning hours of Dec. 2. “There was minor damage to a grate in the basement (possibly the point of entry) and damage to a door that appeared forced open,” a police bulletin stated.

The stained glass windows, each measuring three-and-a-half feet wide and nearly eight-feet-tall, are believed to date to 1881, when this mansion was erected on North 16th Street between Oxford and Jefferson streets. The brass lamp fixture which stood on the banister of the mansion’s grand staircase is believed to date to renovations made in 1906 or 1920.

“Due to the significant historical value of the stolen items, the FBI is involved in the investigation,” Philly police said in a bulletin on the crime.

Formally known as the Albert H. Disston Mansion, the roots of this property date nearly a century and a half back, when Philadelphia still thrived as the “workshop of the world.” The name Disston emerged as that of one of the city’s most renowned companies, Disston Saw Works, which was first founded in 1850 by Henry Disston under the name Keystone Saw Works and grew to sell its saw across the world while expanding manufacturing operations across Tacony. Disston’s legacy is still carried on today by a successor company, Disston Precision in Northeast Philadelphia.

The family’s historic mansion in North Philadelphia, currently owned by a church, was built in the early 1880s by Albert Disston, one of Henry Disston’s five sons. Several Disstons had family homes near North Broad Street. Designed by architect Edwin F. Durang, with interior design by George Herzog, the mansion had just been completed when Albert Disston died in 1883 in his early 30s after a short illness, leaving the mansion to his family.

After his widow’s death in the 1920s, the mansion was sold to a social group called The Progress Club, before shifting back to private ownership, changing hands again to the Bible Institute of Pennsylvania, and ultimately being purchased in 1946 by Father Divine, founder of the Unity Mission Church, a multiracial, socially progressive religious sect.

The Unity Mission Church is still alive today, but one of their best-known landmarks is the Divine Lorraine, former apartments which he purchased two years later a little further south on Broad Street and converted into the international center of his sect, known among other legacies offering pay-as-you-can communal meals to Philly’s impoverished residents. After decades of vacancy and decay, the Divine Lorraine recently reopened to the public with brand-new luxury apartments inside.

“It hurts,” Disston mansion custodian Eric Terry told CBS Philly of the burglary, “especially when you know Father Divine and Mother Divine and the rest of the members would give you anything.”

Anyone with information about the crime is urged to contact Philly Police by calling 215-686-TIPS (8477) or texting a tip to PPDTIP (773847).

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