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The Rotunda Turns 100

May 3, 2011, Volume 57, No. 32

The Rotunda at 4014 Walnut Street continued its year-long 100th birthday celebration this past weekend with Le Dada va Gaga dans 2011, a dance/video work performed by the Anne-Marie Mulgrew and Dancers Company as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.  The Rotunda was an appropriate venue for the festival, which was inspired by the cultural renaissance in Paris from 1910 to 1920. 

Finished and dedicated on June 4, 1911, the building that is now known as The Rotunda was designed by the famed New York architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings for the First Church of Christ Scientist of Philadelphia. 

One of the foremost architectural firms of the Beaux-Arts style, which influenced US architecture from 1880-1920, it was also responsible for the New York Public Library and the Ponce de Leon Boutique Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida, as well as the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC. Both Carrère and Hastings studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in France and were interested in adapting classical European architecture to modern America.

“Certainly the most dynamic aspect of this building is the powerful concatenation of diverse interior spaces, welded together with the ingenuity in planning composition that was bred by the Beaux-Arts system of design, in which the plan came first, followed by the study of outside appearances,” said Dr. David Brownlee, Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Professor in Penn’ department of the history of art. 

“Also notable is the quite free but sensible use of various historical forms, borrowed from Imperial Roman and Early Christian architecture.  There is nothing pedantic or romantic about this, again embodying the best things about the Beaux-Arts system.”

George E. Thomas, lecturer of urban studies at Penn and co-author of Building America’s First University, along with Dr. Brownlee, called the structure, “One of the three best pieces of church architecture in Philadelphia.”

In its day, the building garnered much attention in the architectural world. It was praised in the national magazine, Architecture, which described its “undeniable beauty” and other national architecture magazines such as the Architectural Record and Architectural Forum. The Philadelphia North American, a prominent newspaper, praised the structure for its “splendid light” and focused mostly on the cast iron and blue crystal chandeliers made by church member and well-known artist Violet Oakley along with artisans from Tiffany and Company. 

The 1,500-pound main chandelier that hung from the center of the oculus 50 feet above ground was taken down in 2005 to accommodate video projectors. It now rests in the center of the pine floor in The Rotunda’s sanctuary (see below), where performers sometimes incorporate it into their pieces.

The building served as a place of worship and Sunday school until a dwindling congregation caused the organization to offer its building to Penn. The University of Pennsylvania purchased the building on October 6, 1995. The space lay dormant until students in urban studies seminars led by Drs. Ira Harkavy and Lee Benson came up with an idea: a place for the community to gather based on the idea that art can foster social change and form meaningful relationships between Penn and the neighborhoods that surround it.

The Rotunda, named for its magnificent dome that measures 80 feet in diameter, still features some original wood fumed pews, arched windows and a giant pipe organ. But while it’s easy to focus on the overwhelming beauty of the sanctuary space, the real life of The Rotunda now takes place in its modest back room reminiscent of a middle school auditorium. “It doesn’t look like much now,” said Gina Renzi, who began as a volunteer before becoming executive director in 2003, “but during an event, it really comes alive.”

The back room also features a mural, Collective Imprints, a permanent installation led by muralist Michael B. Schwartz that is a collectively-produced work of visual art that celebrates the life and history of The Rotunda, local history and folklore, and visions for future neighborhoods and communities.

Today, the building is one of Philadelphia’s cultural meccas. Anyone in the community, including those outside of Penn, may utilize the venue that is smoke-free, alcohol-free and appropriate for Philadelphians of all ages. The Rotunda hosts about 300 events per year, ranging from concerts, plays and dance performances to yoga classes, film screenings and art exhibits. Not only is The Rotunda’s programming versatile, it is also accessible. It is community-driven, but University-funded, which means that most events are free of charge. 

Visit www.therotunda.org for more information about The Rotunda, its programs or to volunteer.

Then: First Church of Christ Scientist of Philadelphia, 1958
Now: The Rotunda's Sanctuary as it looks today


Rotunda exterior, 1915









Almanac - May 3, 2011, Volume 57, No. 32