Sacred Places Summer 2009 - Page 11

A Desperate Decision Like so many grand 19th-century churches, Calvary had fallen victim to changing demographics in the 1970s, which left the congregation unable to maintain the building. When structural problems became apparent, and even threatening, nothing could be done. So, in 1990, the disheartened congregation decided to sell the building- Tiffany windows, world class organ and all - and put a price on it which today would not purchase even one of the neighboring houses. However, because of the condition of the building and its location, no one was interested in taking on such a burden, so it continued to deteriorate. Curio Theatre Company’s summer camp students perform on stage in Calvary UMC’s sanctuary. A Grand Building Crumbles Calvary United Methodist Church’s granite ten-story tower soars over one of Philadelphia’s most gracious Victorian street corners at 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue, standing guard over stately old mansions and townhouses. In some ways it looks like time has stood still for over a century. But looks can be deceiving. In the early 1990s, things here weren’t so serene . At that point, it was an open question whether it was possible to save the magnificent church building – and its two, three-story-high Tiffany windows, the largest in the Delaware Valley. Visitors were invariably awestruck when seeing the sanctuary for the first time. The power of Calvary’s architecture stemmed in part from the unexpected interior layout and decor. Given the granite English Gothic exterior, visitors would expect to encounter a dark, rectangular columned nave with beamed ceiling and gothic arches. But instead, a lofty trapezoidal domed space greets them, sunlit by the riot of color from a central stained glass dome and the massive Tiffany windows on the angled sides. In front, instead of a typical chancel, Calvary features a wide arch framed with yellow scagliola columns and filled with a forest of gigantic organ pipes under an intricately carved wooden crown, dramatically backlit by one of the nation’s first examples of indirect electric lighting! Along with amazement, visitors also registered shock over the deteriorated condition of the room, more or less abandoned for a quarter century. Gaping holes in the walls, hundred-pound chunks of plaster fallen from the ceiling, and ample evidence of indoor rainfall tended to transform amazement into stupor. After three years of uneasy limbo, the congregation decided to significantly reduce the building’s price, and to sell the Tiffany windows separately. When the wider community learned of the decision, however, it approached the congregation with concern and alarm. Was there any way to keep the building intact and congregation active? The United Methodist Bishop was called upon to intervene. Bowing to the growing chorus of concern, she agreed to halt the removal of the stained glass domes (they had already been sold), so that community leaders and congregation members could review all possible options. Unexpected Support from Calvary’s Neighbors Among those who were acutely aware of the situation at Calvary was Bob Jaeger, one of the co-Directors of the newly formed Partners for Sacred Places. He and others helped form the Friends of Calvary (FoC), a group of concerned long-time community residents who sought a solution that could help the struggling congregation and at the same time save the building. Given the many stories of success that Partners had begun to gather in its resource library, the Information Clearinghouse, Jaeger believed the situation was not beyond hope. One such par