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Temple helping an old ancestor

University is ready to remake its neglected inspiration

Grace Baptist in 1946. The church, at Berks and Broad Streets, was the home of the Rev. Russell H. Conwell, whose adult classes for a few years in an earlier building laid the foundation for Temple University.
Grace Baptist in 1946. The church, at Berks and Broad Streets, was the home of the Rev. Russell H. Conwell, whose adult classes for a few years in an earlier building laid the foundation for Temple University.Read more


After three decades of neglect, Temple University is reclaiming an architectural gem it once sought to destroy, and is preparing to transform the church that gave birth - and its nickname - to the university itself.

Next month, workers will begin ripping out the tattered, dusty interior of Grace Baptist Church at Berks and Broad Streets, the first step toward making a conference and performance center out of the sprawling, domed, limestone edifice known as "The Temple."

In 1884, Grace Baptist's pastor, the Rev. Russell H. Conwell, began teaching adult classes in the basement of a nearby church. From that program he founded Temple College four years later, evidently naming it for his new 4,000-seat church then under construction. When it opened in 1891, the "Baptist Temple" was said to be the largest Protestant church in the nation.

The university expects to keep some of the Temple's Christian-themed stained glass, but "this is not a restoration. We're not keeping it as a church," said Kenneth Jacobs, project manager for Hillier Architecture, during a tour last week.

Stepping over plywood-patched holes in the floor, Jacobs pointed out the peeling choir loft, organ pipes, and tiled baptismal pool that will make way for a lighted stage.

"Our brief is to make this into an event center that seats 1,200," he said.

"We're making a major commitment to restoring it," said Tom McCreesh, director of planning and design for the university. "It's an interesting and magical structure."

There is some irony in Temple's newfound appreciation of the edifice, to which it has committed $26.4 million.

The university bought the building in 1974 when Grace Baptist's congregation moved to a new church in Blue Bell, but let it fall to near-ruin while pondering how to use it.

By 1986, the church was in such disrepair that Temple's board of trustees concluded it was too expensive to restore. They voted to demolish it and the adjacent College Hall - the original Temple College building - for a small campus park on Broad Street.

Historic preservationists and community and religious groups objected. Thomas Hine, The Inquirer's architecture critic at the time, conceded the exteriors were "a bit ungainly," but called Grace Baptist "by far the strongest piece of architecture on the campus."

Temple's then-president, Peter J. Liacouras, whose office would have overlooked the new park, was unmoved. But the new Philadelphia Historical Commission took on the project as a test of its powers and, noting that it had designated the church and College Hall "worthy of preservation," refused to grant permits for their demolition.

In his most famous sermon, "Acres of Diamonds," Conwell told of a man who searches vainly for riches in far-off lands, never knowing there are diamonds "in his own back yard."

University officials are now "grateful" that the building was preserved, and have "embraced its place" in Temple history, McCreesh said.

Designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas Lonsdale, the church's boxlike sanctuary was "novel" in its day, Jacobs said, because it had no ground-floor columns obstructing the view of the choir loft and pulpit.

Temple's renovation calls for a level ground floor, which now slopes up to the main Broad Street entrance, and a spacious lobby and grand staircase under the rear balcony.

Although the final design is not yet approved, the site will be home to lectures, jazz concerts, orchestral performances and ceremonial events when its stained-glass front doors open in 2009.

The former Chapel of the Four Chaplains, a slate-floored basement hall flanked by columned arches, will be preserved as a small concert and lecture space, McCreesh said.

While Conwell's Temple seems assured a place on the eponymous university's sprawling urban campus, its iconic status threatens to obscure the fact that the church where he first taught classes no longer stands.

The university tore down the original Grace Baptist Church, on Berks near 12th Street, in the 1970s to make way for the concrete Gladfelter Hall and Anderson Hall towers.

It was to that church that the 10-year-old congregation in 1882 "called" Conwell from Lexington, Mass., to be its pastor.

Two years later, a young assistant pastor lamented that he could not afford to complete his studies. Conwell agreed to teach him, but when he arrived at the church basement at the agreed time, he found the young man with six others, all eager to learn.

He soon turned the teaching chores over to members of the congregation, perhaps because his attention was turning to the need for a new church.

So popular was Conwell's preaching that the congregation had to issue tickets to members so that they could get into Sunday services, and in 1885 it began planning for the larger building.

In September 1887, Conwell received a donation with a note reading: "For the success of the new Temple." It is the first recorded use of "temple" to describe the building.

Conwell gave the name to his new college a year later, and "The Temple" was carved in bold relief above the new church's front door.

"We don't have much history. We don't have a lot of these kinds of buildings," Ray Peltz, Temple's director of communications, said last week.

"To bring it back to life is not just important to the Temple community. It's important to the whole city."

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