The Mystery Church: St. Andrew’s Chapel of Spruce Hill

St. Andrew’s Chapel, 4201 Spruce Street, January 14, 1963.

St. Andrew’s Chapel, one of Philadelphia’s finest examples of neo-Gothic architecture, is the  only quiet place on its tree-shaded block.  The locked building is surrounded by the bustle of the children attending the Penn Alexander School and the Parent Infant Center.  From the 1924 to 1974, this church was the centerpiece of the now-closed Philadelphia Episcopal Seminary.

Alonzo Potter (1800-1865), Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania. Source: Wikipedia.

Founded in 1857 by Bishop Alonzo Potter of Pennsylvania, the seminary had a strong connection with the University of Pennsylvania — a strange irony since the Church of England had violently persecuted Quakers (the Penn mascot) back in Great Britain. In the early 1920s, the estate of financier Clarence Clark came on the market.  This five-acre “Chestnutwold” compound had once been one of the finest properties in West Philadelphia, boasting a brownstone Renaissance Revival mansion, and arboretum, and even a private zoo.   Looking for a new home, the Philadelphia Divinity School snapped up the Clark estate, razed all the buildings (only the iron gates remain) and made plans to build an elaborate new campus.  It hired an architectural firm with myriad Penn alumni connections: Zantzinger, Borie and Medary. The firm had made a name for itself as a designer of office buidings, museums, collegiate Gothic dormitories at Princeton, and suburban homes for Philadelphia’s upper class.  It helped that partner Clarence Clark Zantzinger was the grandson of Clarence Clark and an heir to the E.W. Clark & Company banking fortune. Zantzinger and his partners, all Penn alumni, frequently collaborated with Paul-Philippe Cret, distinguished professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. The Zantzinger firm’s most famous alumnus was a Jewish immigrant from Estonia named Louis Kahn, a 1922 graduate of Penn’s architecture school.

Rendering by Ray Hollis (circa 1922), of the Divinity School’s proposed 20 buildings. The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.

The Zantzinger firm’s vision for the new Philadelphia Divinty School was ambitious: a complex of dormitories, dining halls, libraries, administrative buildings, and residences centered around the magnficient St. Andrew’s Chapel.  Completed in 1924, the grandeur of  St. Andrew’s Chapel reflected the booming economy of the Roaring Twenties.  The interior boasted ironwork by Samuel Yellin and stained glass windows by the studios of Nicola D’Ascenzo, and a carved limestone reredos echoing the famous one at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York.

The Dorrance Memorial Window (1924) from St. James the Greater Church in Bristol, PA. A fine example of the work of the D’Ascenzo studio. Wikipedia.com.

Yet the Great Depression slammed the brakes on the Philadelphia Divinity School’s grand plans.  Only six of of the planned twenty-two structures were built.  And unfortunately, in its badly reduced circumstances, the Episcopal Seminary could never quite match the prestige and drawing power of its counterparts in New York (General Theological Seminary) or Cambridge, Massachusetts (Episcopal Divinity School).  The school limped along until 1974, when it closed its doors and the University of Pennsylvania took possession of the property.

Today, St. Andrew’s Chapel, although sealed shut, is completely intact on the inside. The public gets a peak at one of the finest sacred spaces in Philadelphia only at an occassional concert or art installation.

 

Nave of St. Andrew’s Chapel, 4201 Spruce Street, 1980.

 

Choir stalls at St. Andrew’s Chapel, 4201 Spruce Street, 1980.

Sources: 

“At the Former Philadelphia Divinity School Site: Discovering Inspiration from the Past and Creating Spaces to Learn and Grow,” University of Pennsylvania Almanac, March 30, 2010, Volume 56, No. 27., accessed November 13, 2018.

https://almanac.upenn.edu/archive/volumes/v56/n27/divinity.html

Sandra Tatman, “Zantzinger, Borie & Medary (fl. 1910 – 1929),” Philadelphia Architects and Buildings, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 2018, accessed November 13, 2018.

https://www.philadelphiabuildings.org/pab/app/ar_display.cfm/23459

Arnold Lewis, James Turner, and Steven McQuillin, The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age (New York: Dover Publications, 1987), p.46.

“Magnificent  Structure in West Philadelphia Undergoing Demolition by Wrecking Crew,” The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, April 7, 1916. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045211/1916-04-07/ed-1/seq-9/#date1=1836&index=19&rows=20&words=Clark+Park&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=Pennsylvania&date2=1922&proxtext=%22clark+park%22&y=-221&x=-932&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1, accessed December 9, 2015.

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2 Comments

  1. Michael Roy
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    There so many arxhitecturally fine Gothic churches in Philadephia! Thanks for the story about the defunct Epicopal seminary. For a good story about Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church on Locust Street in. Enter City,, with its gifts from a well-known architect who also planned and built Laurel Hill Cemetery and the exterior of The Church of Saints Peter and Paul on the Parkway, see “Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia, from 1847”, Gerald Klever, Amazon books. BTW, this book also tells the story about how, in the early part of the 1900s, neighbors surrounding that church brought suit vs. the Church all the way to the PA Supreme Court for installing bells in the bell tower because they felt that the ringing would bring them sickness and sleeplessness.

  2. Elizabeth Kimball
    Posted November 18, 2018 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Great story. However, the U Penn connection to Quakers is mainly in its mascot –Benjamin Franklin, the founder, was no Quaker, and the early leaders of the school such as William Smith had strong ties to the Episcopal Church and its forebear, the Church of England. And the denomination was long that of the elite. So an Episcopal seminary would have been a natural extension. They certainly thought well of themselves, given the number of enormous gothic buildings they’ve left us to worry about.

    And, the Episcopal seminary in New York is General Seminary. Union was founded by Presbyterians.

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