Renovating a landmark

From the outside, the Baptist Temple appears to be intact and grandiose with its elaborate granite stonemasonry and ornate stained glass windows. But upon entering the interior of the centuries-old North Broad Street building, peeling,

From the outside, the Baptist Temple appears to be intact and grandiose with its elaborate granite stonemasonry and ornate stained glass windows. But upon entering the interior of the centuries-old North Broad Street building, peeling, cracked walls and a dilapidated ceiling echo a long history of neglect that characterizes this landmark structure.

After 33 years of remaining completely unused, Temple will renovate the entire interior of this local landmark and convert the unused church into a multi-purpose performance center. Construction will begin in October 2007 and is estimated to cost a total of $29 million. The project is slated to be complete by November 2009.

“We’re going to be renovating it starting next month,” said Ray Betzner, director of communications. “Two years from now, when we open it up, it will be a multi-purpose performance facility and it will look dramatically different than it does now.”

The Baptist Temple was founded in 1889 by Dr. Russell H. Conwell, also the founder of Temple, and was sold to the university by the Grace Baptist Congregation in 1974.RMJM Hillier, the third-largest architecture firm in the United States, will head the interior design. “Our main goal is to keep the beauty as much as possible, especially the back window, and to create a really
modern environment,” said Sonja Bijelic, associate principal of RMJM Hillier.

“We are inspired by the old and creating new.”

One hundred years ago, when the church was fully operational, one could walk in on a Sunday afternoon and find 4,500 churchgoers seated on the ground floor and the above balcony that wrapped around the entire corridor.

A semi-rose window, depicting John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, rests on the upper level – the most visible stained glass window from the exterior – and illuminates the interior with rays of sunlight. From behind the pulpit where Conwell preached, there flowed an artificial river, meant to emblemize the Jordan River, where members were baptized. Just behind the aqueduct, a 200-voice choir would sing hymns in front of a towering pipe organ.

“Back in the day before there were movies and television and radio and other entertainment, going to hear a really great pastor preach was a really big event to a lot of people,” Betzner said. “So you can imagine the spirit that must have been in this place.” Now, the organ and pulpit have been removed, but the looming pipes still remain. The once flowing river now runs dry, leaving behind faded, teal-colored tiles. Only the radiant semi-rose window
remains in its original splendor. According to representatives of RMJM Hillier, the massive organ pipes that line the western corridor will be replaced with an elevated stage designed to fit 215 choir members and a full orchestra.

The floor, once designated for the thousands of churchgoers, will be replaced with stadium seating designed to accommodate 2,100 audience members.
Beneath the church is a chapel that was converted into the Chapel of the Four Chaplains in 1951. The chapel, which was dedicated by former President Harry S. Truman, symbolized the four chaplains that gave up their life vests on the sinking Dorchester on Feb. 3, 1943. One of the chaplains was the son of the pastor at the time. The chapel was equipped with a pivoting alter that would change depending on the faith of the observers, since the four chaplains represented the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths.

“We do not want to do any demolition
in this area, so were going to clean up the beams and limestone walls, and its going to be used as a small performance space,” said Tom McCreesh, the director of planning and design at Temple.

“We realize the importance of this area, and we do not want to, in any way, change its character.””We want to make sure that this is a place where the community and the university come together,” Betzner said.

“The multipurpose room will be used for musical performances, plays, conferences, debates and many other events. There is no other facility on campus that will be like it.”

The downstairs chapel, before it’s conversion to commemorate the four chaplains, was used for Conwell’s social
service programs, because the role of the church was not just administered to the spirit, but to the whole person and community, Betzner said.

The university twice attempted to tear down the building, once in 1989 and again in 1999, claiming that it blocked the view of campus and was too expensive to renovate or upkeep. The Philadelphia Historical Commission refuted the university both times.In 2003, the building was recognized
for its historical significance and contribution to the city of Philadelphia and was designated as a “landmark building” by the American Institute of Architects.

“Very fortunately, the building’s exterior condition is good enough that we can preserve the best parts of it, while at the same time renovating and updating the interior to turn it into a modern facility,” Betzner said.

Sam Benesby can be reached at

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