Although it is now touted as the “symbolic home” of Temple University, since the 1970s the Baptist Temple on the southwest corner of Berks and Broad had suffered from a quasi-official policy of salutary neglect. Some have gone so far as to sugest that it was the approach of former Temple University president Peter J. Liacouras (1981-2000) to look the other way as the historic cradle of the university mouldered into the ground. While this is unknown, Temple has come around to the idea of adapting (while not preserving) the internal space where charismatic Russell H. Conwell taught a handful of “night owls” seeking upward advancement.
But Conwell’s connection to the Thomas P. Lonsdale-designed Baptist Temple deserves some clarification. When Conwell arrived from Boston in Philadelphia in 1882, his charge was to lead the congregation of the Grace Baptist Temple at 12th and Berks Sts. With his captivating style of self-help Christianity, Conwell appealed to Philadelphia’s droves of aspiring workers. According to Temple apochrypha he began teaching hungry students in the basement of the Grace Baptist Temple. When the Baptist Temple was constructed in 1891, Conwell moved his congregation–and his students–to the new facility. Three years later, College Hall (now Barrack Hall) was constructed to accommodate the growing student body. Technically, the Baptist Temple was not the wellspring of the University as it is often claimed, and official publications touting the refurbishment sidestep this issue. A line in “Baptist Temple: A Landmark Restoration” given out at tours reveals that the Baptist Temple was only used for classes from 1891-94 until College Hall was constructed.
Regardless, the space incubated what would become the 28th largest university in the country, and furthermore Russell Conwell gave his 6,000th rendition of “Acres of Diamonds”–his pean to social responsibility–there in 1921. In 1951, the Chapel of the Four Chaplains was installed in the basement–a fitting choice since one of the chaplains lost on the U.S.A.T. Dorchester was the son of the pastor of the Grace Baptist Temple. Truman came to commemorate the event and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke there in 1965. But the Baptist Temple went through a precipitous decline after the congregation sold the church to Temple in 1974 and it seems no one at Temple really knew what to do with the building until now.
Modifying a sacred space for public use is a tricky issue. As the project architects and preservationists mentioned to me, the donor inscription tiles and other religious disembodied from the congregation that gave them meaning will be offered to Grace Baptist. But most of the interior of the structure will be substantially modified during the $29 million project–including construction of a wall to damper the sound of Broad St. and its subway. Even today, the place is combination amphitheater and church, a sacred space with no bad seat just crying out for new orators: a place perfect for both contemplation and action.