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