A gem with rough edges  

 
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A gem with rough edges

 

If the restored Victorian splendor of the homes along Pine Street or the decaying grandeur of the mansion at The Woodlands have yet to tempt you to walk beyond campus, here’s another reason to venture west: the Philadelphia Divinity School at 42nd street, between Locust and Spruce.

The complex, constructed from 1919 to 1960, includes the St. Andrew’s Collegiate Chapel and an adjacent building that served as the Divinity School’s classrooms and offices. The Divinity School’s original plan, according to History of Art Professor David Brownlee, was to fill the entire block with quads and buildings, but due to a merger with a sister school, it vacated the premises altogether. (You can check out what the architects intended in the original model, preserved at Penn’s Architectural Archives.) For more than 20 years, this architectural gem has been owned by Penn.

The principal members of the original architectural firm were all Penn alumni: Clarence C. Zantzinger (Ar 1895), Charles L. Borie (C 1892, Ar 1897) and Milton B. Medary (attended classes in 1890). This was the same firm responsible for designing the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It’s a very handsome example of collegiate gothic architecture built by a very sophisticated firm of architects,” says Brownlee.

According to Omar Blaik, senior vice president for Facilities and Real Estate Services, Penn is interested in finding a use for the chapel that will restore its physical splendor and benefit the neighborhood. “We always thought it was a great, special place,” says Blaik. Since the building is located in the heart of the Spruce Hill neighborhood, Blaik believes the community should drive any discussion about its permanent use.

The Parent-Infant Center inhabits one of the buildings, along with a few Graduate School of Education classrooms and professional development areas.
But before anyone inhabits the grand chapel on a permanent basis, much work needs to be done on the infrastructure—parts of the roof leak, the bearing walls need to be repaired and the steeple on top of the building is likely not structurally sound. Andrew Zitcer, cultural asset manager for Facilities and Real Estate Services, says that the electrical wiring needs to be upgraded, and crews would need to install a more permanent means of handicapped accessibility and bathrooms.

The chapel has been put to use in recent months—The Philadelphia Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe Festival secured a temporary occupancy permit for “Planetary Enzyme Blues,” a performance by New Paradise Lab about local visionaries in the 1960s. Zitcer says the chapel proved to be a unique and striking performance space. Bleachers were set up on the altar, and performers were able to use the entire nave of the church during the show since the pews have been removed.

Many of the building’s striking features are still intact: The walls are lined with wooden chairs that look like small thrones. Wooden carvings reminiscent of church spires rise from the chair backs and are adorned with gold leaf paint and touches of green, blue and red. The church also boasts several fine cobalt blue and deep red stained glass windows above the altar. Through a door near the main entryway, a series of rooms snake around the side of the building—space that could potentially be turned into safe and code-compliant office space, says Zitcer. One thing is certain—it won’t be demolished.

“It’s a treasure for the neighborhood, for us,” says Blaik. “The challenge is in how to find the resources to restore it.”



Originally published on October 20, 2005