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
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
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
One such par