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At the Former Philadelphia Divinity School Site:
Discovering Inspiration from the Past and Creating Spaces to Learn and Grow
March 30, 2010, Volume 56, No. 27


Divinity School Door
An ornate interior door

Now owned by the University of Pennsylvania, the buildings that make up the campus of the former Philadelphia Divinity School have a long and storied history. Located on the block between 42nd and 43rd, and Locust and Spruce Streets, the Divinity School site is an architectural treasure that is well worth the walk to the western edge of campus. 

The Past

The Philadelphia Divinity School was founded in 1857 by Alonzo Potter, Bishop of Pennsylvania and member of Penn’s Board of Trustees from 1845 to 1865, to educate Episcopalian priests.  It was one of the first seminaries of the Episcopal Church to admit and house students of African American descent and the first to train women for service in the ministry. 

Not surprisingly, the Divinity School’s connection to Penn existed decades before the University ever owned its buildings. 

In 1919, then Dean of Penn’s School of Fine Arts, Warren Powers Laird, was chosen to advise and prepare the program of an architecture competition to decide which firm would design the Divinity School’s campus. In his notes, housed at Penn’s Architectural Archives, he specified that the site be designed in such a way that would facilitate exchange of ideas and “interchange of academic facilities” between the two institutions. 

The winner of the design competition was the firm of Zantzinger, Borie and Medary. Clarence Zantzinger and Charles Borie were both Penn alumni, earning their architecture degrees in 1895 and 1897, respectively. Charles Borie also attended Penn as an undergraduate (C’1892) and was a founding member of Penn’s longstanding Mask and Wig Club. Although Milton Medary did not graduate, he attended classes at Penn in 1890. 

The firm’s original plan to fill the entire block with buildings and quadrangles was considered one of the most ambitious architectural projects of its time. Penn holds the original model (see below) of what was envisioned for the site in its Architectural Archives, along with some of the firm’s records. 

Of the original plan, only six buildings were ever completed, all of which remain standing today. The site’s oldest structure is the William Bacon Stevens Library, completed in the Tudor Gothic style in 1921. 

Following that was St. Peter’s House on the corner of 43rd and Spruce, which was a residential building completed in 1924. Today, this building is home to the Head Start Program of the School District of Philadelphia. 

The remaining buildings are Saint Paul’s House, completed in 1925, which originally housed dorm rooms and school administration offices; Memorial Hall, which added more classroom and dormitory space in 1951, and Hart Hall (1955), which contained a dining area and additional living quarters. 

The most recognizable building in the Divinity School complex is Saint Andrew’s Chapel, which is considered one of Pennsylvania’s finest examples of Neo-Gothic Architecture. Built in 1924, along with its attached Deanery, the chapel rests on the highest point of the hilly five acre complex, 74 feet above the ground. 

The interior features ornate stained glass by Nicholas D’Ascenzo, elaborate iron screens by Samuel Yellin, and a hammer-beam ceiling adorned with Biblical figures by the artist Gustav Ketterer. Regarded as one of the most beautiful religious spaces in the city, the shist stone structure also contains intricately carved Gothic choir stalls and Enfield ceramic tiles.

In 1974, The Philadelphia Divinity School closed to combine with its sister institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Upon its closing, Penn acquired its Yarnall Library of Theology Collection, which consists of approximately 21,000 volumes and 700 rare books, now in Penn’s Special Collections. The Collection supports specialized study in the fields of Anglican and Roman Catholic canon law, history, biography, liturgy and theology and related subjects.

In June of 1977, University City Associates purchased the land and buildings from the Episcopal Divinity School, Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of St. Andrew’s Church in the City of Philadelphia for $608,000.

The site continued its tradition of being a place to teach and learn; it has housed the Penn Children’s Center, The Middle Years Alternative School and the University City New School, a progressive, multicultural, private elementary school that served the community for nearly three decades.

The Present

Currently, the site is home to the Parent Infant Center; the Philadelphia Writing Project, a non-profit network of teachers that serves West Philadelphia, and the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School. 

In June of 1998, then Penn President Judith Rodin announced an initiative with the Philadelphia Public School District and the teachers’ union to create a “demonstration school” for students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade (Almanac July 14, 1998). 

Construction of the school began in March 2001. Its campus incorporates the historic buildings, as well as new facilities with pre-school and daycare, a professional development center, community education facilities and landscaped grounds designed for educational and recreational use. 

The school’s namesake, Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898-1989), earned four degrees from Penn and has the distinction of being both the first African American in the nation to earn a PhD in economics (1921) and the first African American woman to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar (1927), among other achievements. The Penn Alexander School opened its doors in September 2001 and can accommodate 600 students in grades pre-kindergarten through eighth.

The Future

The Parent Infant Center (PIC), which has been on the site since 1986, has recently expanded into the former William Bacon Stevens Library. When renovations are completed in mid-April of this year, the building will be renamed for Marni Sweet, the former PIC director, who lost her battle with cancer in September of 2007. During construction, the cornerstone was moved to accommodate a new door, revealing a time capsule from 1960. The time capsule is expected to be opened soon, revealing contents that have been protected for 50 years.

Click here for a slideshow of photos of the Chapel’s interior as it exists today. Curious visitors can check it out in person and support the Parent Infant Center by attending their annual plant sale, which will be held in the Chapel from April 30 to May 1.

Andrea Tursi

Divinity School Model

Rendering by Ray Hollis (circa 1922), of the Divinity School’s proposed 20 buildings. A model, once placed behind the altar in St. Andrew’s Chapel, is now housed at Penn’s Architectural Archives.


Almanac - March 30, 2010, Volume 56, No. 27