What could be deemed Philadelphia’s most gracious gathering space, The Deacon opened its doors — and heart — to us, in the name of community empowerment.
The First African Baptist Church at 16th and Christian Streets in Philadelphia was erected in 1906, and held space for the oldest Baptist congregation in the city. Today, as that congregation has relocated westward, the church now lays claim to a revolving congregation — as a boutique hotel and event space.
Last week, The Deacon, as it’s now known, hosted an event benefitting Girls Inc. with a workshop by Sophia Roe and Imperfect Produce. We spoke with co-founder Valerie Abitbol and Shannon Maldanado, interior designer of The Deacon — who coincidentally are both former employees of Urban Outfitters Inc. — to learn more about how this inspiring and truly glorious community space came to be.
Tell us about the birth of The Deacon. How much did the actual church play a part in its inception?
Val: The Deacon is co-founded by Everett Abitbol, William Vessal, and myself. While the original development of the historic church began with a plan for a pre-school and apartments, that concept changed after the school expanded into a larger portion of the church. A trip to San Francisco sparked Everett and my concept of a space for intimate gatherings and large group stays. When the idea of a boutique hotel came into the conversation, the team kept thinking about the church’s ethos of “community” and building a space meant for gathering and creating memorable experiences.
This was your first official foray into interior design and Val’s first foray into hospitality. Tell us more.
Shannon: I met Everett when my brand YOWIE was just a pop-up inside of Philly’s Ubiq in spring 2017. We originally spoke about outfitting his current rental spaces with YOWIE objects and accessories. Fast forward to July 2018, and The Deacon was ready for an interior designer and Everett reached out to do a site visit. I was very forthcoming with my lack of interior design experience but insisted I loved design, the building, and its history so much that I’d love to be involved and would do everything I could to “get the word out and help make the place a success.” I felt a great responsibility to the origins of the church, to face my fears of a massive first interior design project and to give Philadelphia a bold space that did not currently exist. It was equally terrifying and exiting! It still feels surreal.
V: It was a mix of nervous energy and true excitement when the project began. Everett and I had just come back from San Francisco. We had had this great experience at a hotel which did not intentionally plan for our family’s “taking over” its small space during my cousin’s wedding. I remember on the flight back, discussing with Everett how would we could convert that experience into a concept — as providing a canvas on which others can paint their own experiences. What I did know was that my operations experience would lend itself well to help steer this ship. Each day walking into The Deacon brings a smile to my face… And nothing was better than seeing Free People and Girls Inc. there this past weekend.
In a few words, can you share just went into The Deacon’s transformation?
S: After many false starts, our co-founders saw the potential to create a unique space that could speak to group travel, unique events, and creativity. When I joined the team in August 2018 I was excited to take these prompts and bring a bold, colorful, and modern eye to the project and what would become a unique multi-use space. That being said, there were so many original details that we wanted to preserve, such as the stained glass, gold trimming, and a gorgeous chandelier that greets you in the common area.
It’s very cool to see a former church – a place of community-building and preservation — retain those same characteristics but in a new form. What does community mean to each of you?
S: Community is such a big part of my brand and shop. When I returned to Philadelphia in June 2016, I quickly reached out to many creatives via cold email inviting them to my first pop-up at Meadowsweet Mercantile (150 people to be exact). With each pop-up I began to build friendships and connections to more artists and young collectors. Once we opened our storefront in June 2017, it was important to me that we hosted events that were not only about product but about connecting people to new friends or future collaborators. I see YOWIE as an intersection between art and community.
V: Community has dictated many of our families’ recent decisions. We fell in love with Philadelphia when we moved here in 2006 and quickly learned that it was a city comprised of neighborhoods and the unique communities within them. While we began work on The Deacon, we realized more and more how important this sense of community was. I remember during a meeting with the Neighborhood Association in which we had to present our concept and consider the impact The Deacon may have on parking, noise etc…. While we fielded questions, one woman stood up. She came to get approval for an addition to her home, and stated that this neighborhood — Graduate Hospital — was made up of mostly 2-story homes, typically with 3 bedrooms and not conducive for hosting large parties. Like many transplants, she would opt to send visiting family to the hotels in Center City, and she felt this didn’t truly represent the Philly she lives in. She asked to not only make a reservation at the Deacon, but to host her Thanksgiving dinner there… It melted our hearts.
What are your favorite architectural details of the Deacon?
S: There are so many. But my absolute favorite is the stained glass that lives in bedroom No.2 — which depicts an angel in a purple robe with striking magenta wings; and in bedroom No. 8, which shows a lamb whose color has been reduced by years of sun damage. The lines of the drawing are ghostly and very faint. It’s gorgeous! I also love the warm gold trim that lives in the common area and the upstairs bedrooms.
V: The vaulted ceilings get me…. I love the shadows and depth they create. I try and work there a few days a week, and find myself staring up at them for minutes… A good distraction! I also love the stained glass window to the left of the kitchen. In the late afternoon, the sun hits it and creates a magenta spot on the floor next to one of the round tables. It’s really so pretty what happens when the sun touches these windows.
Both you and Val are previous UO employees. What was that like, to strike out on your own?
S: I moved back to Philadelphia after 12 years in New York with one goal in mind: to create my own small business. I joined the team at UO shortly after my move — the knit tops team — which was exciting because it was a category I hadn’t previously designed in. I was doing pop-ups during most of my time at UO and always knew I was going to open a space at some point and was very transparent about it. Once the shop was up and running I knew it was time to focus my time and energy on building my brand and storefront. It was very exciting to take everything I learned after over 12 years in fashion and apply it to my own brand.
V: I was a bit scared. At FP, I managed the planning operations team and had established a certain level of confidence in what I did. At The Deacon I was a fish out of water, but I enjoy building solid operations and love solving problems. I made calls to tech partners like Little Hotelier and Caviar, building a solution that would provide a special and seamless experience for our guests. It’s a really fulfilling experience to see enjoyment as the result of your hard work.
How can these wonderful displays of confidence and empowerment resonate with the Girls Inc. community, whom you hosted on behalf of Free People this Saturday?
S: I hope that my work at YOWIE and The Deacon can show others that vision and hard work pays off. I’ve worked incredibly hard to put myself through college, worked for incredible brands like Ralph Lauren, UO and AE and built a brand that is self-funded and run by one woman with a small circle of friends as mentors and advisors. Is it easy? Of course not! But is worth it? DEFINITELY! I wouldn’t trade it for anything!
V: I hope that my experience can show young women to take risks and believe in themselves. It was a risk to leave a job that I loved, take some time to myself and to do something I had no experience in. But through that risk came excitement and a strong belief in myself and my abilities. As a young woman, it can be scary to picture yourself as an entrepreneur, or to take a road where the outcome is an unknown…
What does the future hold for the Deacon?
S: Co-branded events with YOWIE and other local partners.
V: We are looking forward to releasing individual hotel0style room rentals… and working hard on our next project, which is a similar concept to The Deacon, but in another historic building… It’s really exciting!
If The Deacon had an anthem, what would that song be?
S: “Juice” by Lizzo. We played it to test our speakers, and then about 3,000 more times during opening week to get in the zone.
Deacon photos by Jillian Guyette.