After two decades of attempts by past Temple University administrations to demolish one of the most visible reminders of Temple’s roots, the University has decided to instead restore the Baptist Temple.
The church, which has been called the historical and spiritual heart of the University, was built in 1889.
The building was originally built to accommodate the huge crowds that came to listen to Temple founder Russell Conwell’s sermons.
It was sold to the University in 1974.
It has stood abandoned for the last 20 years while university administrators debated what to do with the building.
“The thought process of the past administrators was that there would be a better view of the campus if the church weren’t there,” said Director of Engineering and Construction Andrew Riccardi.
The arrival of President David Adamany has changed that, according to Vice President of Facilities Management Robert Buchholz.
“It’s an amazing structure,” Buchholz said.
“I’ve been inside with [Adamany] and I can say that he’s not interested in knocking it down.”
When the congregation that used the church for worship relocated to Blue Bell in 1974, they sold the building to the University for $550,000.
For a time the church was used as an auditorium, but it has been closed now for nearly two decades because of an unstable roof and a failure to meet city fire codes.
A 1983 study said the building was too small for student and faculty uses.
In response, the University Board of Trustees voted 15 to 1 on May 13, 1986 to tear down the church, citing the high cost of renovation and no clear use for the building.
They said a proposal to use the church as a performing arts center was impractical because there would be no backstage area or lobby.
They also said that a renovation to create classrooms and offices would cause the historic character of the original church to be lost.
Because the church was registered as a historical building, the University had to submit its plans for any changes to the Philadelphia Historical Commission before proceeding with demolition.
University officials proposed a $3.4 million plan that called for a careful demolition of the church that would leave behind several exterior wall pieces to surround a memory garden and outdoor theater.
But at a Sept. 24, 1986 historical commission meeting, the University received a political spanking from the commission and then-city councilman John Street.
Street said that over the previous 12 years the University spent over $60 million for new construction, but allocated no money for the maintenance of the church.
He said that this neglect contributed to building’s deteriorated state and the now-high cost of renovation.
The commission blocked the University’s request. 11 years later, the school returned with a similar demolition request citing the same argument: the church is too expensive to renovate and too costly to maintain.
Historical commission officials pointed out that the commission had previously denied the demolition application and urged the University to find a use for the building.
University officials continued pursuing the issue of demolition by re-packaging it with the plans for the construction of the residence hallat 1940 Liacouras Walk.
University officials said that diminishing enrollment numbers had fostered a need for a nicer looking campus and space for more student dormitories.
The historical commission voted 7-2 on June 26, 1998 to allow the demolition of Thomas Hall for the new residence hall in exchange for the University’s promise to find a use for the vacant church.
President Adamany said in June 2001 that the University needed to show an increased sensitivity towards its historic structures and that “the [church] is historically important and should be studied for university uses and historic preservation.”
Adamany commissioned a study that found the roof supports could be adequately reinforced, but that all of the actual roofing was beyond repair. The study proposed a complete roof overhaul and repairs to southern part of the building where there was extensive water damage.
According to Buchholz, the University has set aside $2.5 million toward the design and repair of the roof.
“We’re going to repair the … roof system, because we feel we can do something with this building,” he said.
“The project is out for bids now and the interior work will begin over winter break and the exterior work in late March.”
He said the roof has been damaged since 1986, and after 16 years of water damage there is a need for other repair work, including replacement of the church’s seating and flooring.
Despite the deteriorated condition of the building, he said that the church has a lot of potential and would be a good challenge to renovate.
“I want to try and do something for the building,” he said.
“I would never advocate the Baptist Temple being taken down.”
Chris Powell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org