At right and below: In Tony Ventello's photos of the smoldering Addams Hall, the view is from the roof of the adjacent parking garage.

At left: interior during construction of the studios.

March 18, 1997
Volume 43 Number 26

In this issue

News in Brief: Benefits Update--SEC March 19; Hi-Tech Safety Expo March 26-27; Wharton's Higher Still; Job Opps: Old and New
Chairs for Law's Austin and Fitts
SAS Research Fellowships for Four
Penn and the City: April 4
Benefits Redesign:The End is Near
OF RECORD: Maternity/Tenure
Council Discussion on Benefits
Speaking Out: Benefits--Keeping Excellence; PENNCare Costs
OF RECORD: English Fluency for Teachers of Undergraduates
Rose Fund
Tutoring/Learning Center
Women of Color Awards
Penny Drive for Ill Kids
Penn Women Who Made History
OF RECORD: Religious Holidays
PENNCOM: Coordinating the Eyes and Ears of Public Safety

COMPASS Features
-- Mazel Tov! A Major Collection
-- Talking Point: Dennis Culhane on Better Ways to Help the Homeless
-- Problem? Post-It, Solve It
-- She's Come This Far by Faith
-- Academic Support: Rallying Around

Penn Printout: The Digest
What's Next for Addams Hall? (article at right)

The four-alarm fire of Sunday, March 9, was still smoldering the next day when Tony Ventello of Facilities Management took his photographs (at near left and below). Soon afterward, cranes were brought in and the heavily damaged north wall (foreground) was taken down; so were the peaks of the eastern and western walls, for safety during the investigation still in progress. The south wall facing Chestnut Street is still standing, braced by the scaffolding that had been put up to shield the restored stonework during renovation of the interior. A new slate roof had just been installed.

What's Next for Addams Hall: 'New Effort and New Plans'

At week's end there were more questions than answers: How did the fire start? The fire marshal is still investigating. Are they going to have to tear it down? L&I hasn't ruled yet. Was the building insured? Yes, under Penn's blanket policy.

The former Asbury Methodist Church was well on its way to opening by fall as Charles Addams Hall, when fire was discovered about 1:45 p.m. Sunday, March 9. About 100 fireman fought the fire for some five hours before they could bring it under control. Not just a building but a part of Philadelphia's past was burning, and Penn's architectural historian Dr. George Thomas wrote what amounts to an obituary for what went up in flames (below). Van Pelt Library's Roberta Dougherty delved into a 1903 volume, West Philadelphia Illustrated, for the history of the building and its wooden predecessor, so vital to the Methodist community that it became the "mother church" for the area west of the river. And sometimes very far west: a Rev. J. F. Crouch, at Chester, is quoted as saying that "an old lady belonging to his congregation told him that she frequently in her younger days walked from Chester to Philadelphia, to attend the Sunday lovefeast at Asbury, returning the same day. The distance covered is about twenty-four miles."

In the renovations under way by Santos Levy Associates, the designers were handling the fabric of the century--old church as respectfully as if it were still consecrated. Stained glass windows were removed for safekeeping (and they remain safe in storage). The basic layout of the church worked well for what the Graduate School of Fine Arts had in mind as a memorial to alumnus Addams. The sanctuary was not on the first floor but on the second --and the first was already divided for Sunday School rooms and offices while the second was an open delight, soaring 38 feet at its apex, the space broken only by a choir loft and the decorative details of its age. Setting a block of studios into the lofty upper room was in progress, and according to Alan Levy, who is on the faculty at GSFA as well as a partner of Adele Santos in the Center City firm, the word-of-mouth about its rightness came because "The steel was in, so the space could be experienced as it would become." The floor where the congregation had worshiped was to have been a floor of classrooms and gallery, with 14-foot ceilings, while the studio floor's walls, set in the vertical 24 feet above, would have walls only 12 feet high. Another special element was that while the original south facade and entry would still lead to the gallery and classrooms, a second entry on the west would give access to the studios above--an entry set back, to avoid any visual interference with the southern facade, and all glass, so that it obscured none of the stone.

"The fire was a very sad event for the Graduate School of Fine Arts, for Penn and for everyone who worked so hard to transform the Asbury Church into a splendid new Addams Hall," said President Judith Rodin. "We are extremely fortunate that no one was harmed in the blaze. All of us who care so deeply about the future of this important site, Addams Hall and GSFA must now move forward with new inspiration, new effort and new plans -- and we will."

Asbury Methodist Church

(1884-89 to March 1997)

The destruction by fire of the Asbury Methodist Church closes a chapter in the history of the University of Pennsylvania's neighborhood.

Before trolleys crossed the Schuylkill, Hamilton Village was developed by the Hamilton family to take advantage of the proximity of their estate to the Market Street bridge. Sites were given to various religious denominations by the Hamilton family in the hope that the presence of those institutions would encourage families to buy and build in the wilds to the west side of the Schuylkill. Asbury Methodist Church was founded in 1844 and soon built a church on Chestnut Street. Named for Francis Asbury, the circuitriding 18th century preacher, it quickly became an important institution in the developing village.

Two generations later, in 1884, the cornerstone was laid for an immense new church, the largest in Hamilton Village. The congregation selected Scotsborn architect John Ord (c. 1840 1910, active in Philadelphia after 1871) to design its new structure. After a short period on his own, Ord formed a shortlived partnership between 1877 and 1879 with Quaker architect Addison Hutton. The most remarkable buildings of that venture were Bryn Mawr College's Taylor and Merion Halls. He then moved to the office of fellow Scot John McArthur who was directing the construction of his masterwork, Philadelphia's City Hall. When McArthur died in 1890, Ord succeeded him and for three years continued that vast project.

Given his partnerships with other architects, the Asbury Church provided the best insights into the nature of Ord's interests and tastes. Its broad, planar surfaces and pointed Gothic detail indicate that Ord had not succumbed to the round arched forms of the Romanesque of Henry Hobson Richardson. Instead, his taste remained rooted in the English architecture of the era when he was studying in Scotland. This is close to the work of such men as James Brooks whose work broke with the restrained historicism of Augustus Pugin's Gothic. The ideas of the later architects were reflected in the eclectic mixture of details, broad platetraceried windows from the 11th century overlaid with striking architectural polychromy established by the contrast of brown stone walls and limestone detail. In plan, the building followed an old type that is rooted in German architectural forms of the late middle ages and which were brought to Philadelphia where they remained common. The entrance opened into a broad narthex with stairs on either side leading to the upstairs church. The first floor, carried on castiron columns, housed Sunday school and other facilities that denote the urban character of the church mission. The great sanctuary space was remarkable for its breadth and lightness.

Like many neighborhood churches, Asbury lost its congregation with the expansion of its University neighbors. However, it was long recognized that the great volumes of churches formed important landmarks in the community. After many years of searching, the University planners saw the opportunity to take advantage of its great interior volume by adapting the building to serve the needs of the Fine Arts studios of Graduate School of Fine Arts. That work was underway, directed by SantosLevy Associates. In a nice touch of life imitating art, its dour Gothic exterior was being restored and its interior was being adapted thanks to a gift honoring the legendary New Yorker cartoonist (and former Penn Fine Arts student) Charles Addams, whose Gothic humor, it is often claimed, was nurtured at Penn.

-- George E. Thomas, Ph.D.

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