Last night, I joined fellow historic building fans and saviors for the Preservation Alliance’s annual preview tour of one of the group’s upcoming Awards luncheon honoree projects: the former Baptist Temple, now the Temple Performing Arts Center. What a great rehabilitation project I discovered, and what a perfect architectural example of Philadelphia’s 250-year-old and still thriving reputation as a center of innovation and invention.
Project architects rmjm/Hillier and engineers Keast & Hood were presented with a 100+ year old stone landmark that had been abandoned for more than 20 years. The team was challenged with transforming it into a performing space with enough flexibility to welcome the University orchestra, rock concerts, weddings and weekend church services. One of their most interesting tasks required inserting a substantial lobby space into what was originally designed in 1891 as one large preaching barn. A big, square open space – no interior columns to intrude on the sightlines of the 4,000 congregants to the pulpit, 200 voice choir loft and “River of Jordan” baptismal font – had to be divided to provide a traditional, separated lobby with the usual audience amenities and new vertical circulation.
Thankfully, instead of trying to create a historicized, pseudo-19th century lobby, the architects chose a very sleek, modern vocabulary that draws patrons through a glowing glass and steel environment into the stunning, and slightly surprising, restored auditorium. Meanwhile, the designers also had to engineer a structural upgrade that complemented the four underperforming columns at building corners, which stretch from foundation to roof, that Keast & Hood tour guides described as ” like a waiter supporting a tray on the tips of four outstretched fingers.”
Baptist Temple and Temple University founder Russell Conwell headed up Victorian Philadelphia’s premiere megachurch here, where he built a theatre that was designed to focus his star struck flock’s attention, center stage, on his notoriously uplifting and inspiring sermons. So the University’s preservation project at Conwell’s Temple can’t be called an adaptive use; it’s still a theatre. But the careful rehabilitation includes textbook restoration of lots of historic elements, like conservation of scores of art glass windows. The spectacular central fan window above the entrance now casts a gloriously colorful glow in the auditorium through an enormous – and soundproof – glass wall in the new lobby.
One historic element didn’t make the restoration planning cut, however. In the Chapel of the Four Chaplains, a splendid undercroft designed in an elegant Romanesque style in 1951, the great central arch frames the platform from whence interdenominational religious services were to be conducted. But the turntable within the arch that allowed the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant altars or regalia to be rotated into view when needed was never fully used, and has now been dispensed with.
Observers like marketing guru Patricia Mann are extolling Philadelphia’s current brand as an incubator of innovation and the logical extension of our long history as a “cradle of invention.” (See Ben Franklin.) The inventively and beautifully reborn Temple on North Broad is a first rate performance hall, a terrific model of preservation with out-of-the-box thinking, and a worthy recipient of the Preservation Alliance’s Achievement Award.