Marked Potential: St. Andrew’s Collegiate Chapel

July 15, 2016 | by Shila Scarlet Griffith, LEED AP


| Photo: Michael Bixler

The Episcopal seminary chapel at 42nd and Spruce has been largely underused since 1974 when the school closed. It is now open only four times a year to the public for art auctions and a plant sale | Photo: Michael Bixler

Philadelphia Divinity School Chapel – Marked as an Indoor Rock Climbing Gym

The gorgeous St. Andrew’s Chapel at 4205 Spruce Street spends its days in quiet resignation. Built in 1919 on the campus of the former Philadelphia Divinity School of the Protestant Episcopal Church, this classic example of Gothic Revival was designed by the architectural firm Zantzinger, Borie and Medary–all alumni of nearby University of Pennsylvania. Penn has maintained close ties to the divinity school since its founding in 1857 by Bishop Alonzo Potter, a former member of Penn’s Board of Trustees. The school was one of the first Episcopal Church seminaries to admit and provide housing for African American students. It was also the first to train women for service in the ministry. The seminary campus hummed with classes and sermon lessons until 1974 when the school closed and operations were moved to the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The real estate firm University City Associates, a development arm of Penn, purchased the campus, on the full city block between Locust and Spruce, 42nd and 43rd, in 1977 for $608,000. Penn leased the school buildings to a private school and a child care center, and later built the Sadie Alexander public school there. But despite its terrific location and generous, open floor plan, the beautifully preserved chapel is currently vacant and unused. In 2015, the artist Aaron Asis briefly reactivated the chapel and opened it to the public with the site-specific art installation, Ci-Lines. (See Michael Bixler’s photo essay about the installation HERE.)

Photograph showing sermon studies inside the St. Andrew’s Chapel in the 1950s | Photo: From the archives of the Free Church of St. John in Kensington via

With this schematic design we focus on the main floor of the chapel. The building’s most prominent features are the height and overall grandiosity of the space, a common characteristic in religious Gothic architecture. When evaluating adaptive reuse options we kept revisiting the chapel’s height and clever ways to connect with it through user experience, while not breaking up the space by putting in additional floors nor completely compromising the ornamentation. As an indoor rock climbing gym visitors can literally scale the walls, attaining unique views of the interior architecture that would otherwise be inaccessible from the ground. The chapel has stunning stained glass windows that bring vibrant natural light into the space. This proposed use also allows the preservation of most of the interior partitions and all exterior walls in our exploratory design.

The demographic of University City, and the proximity of the Sadie Alexander School, suggests the chapel is ideal for this type of niche enterprise. Rock climbing transcends age, of course, but its rare to find patrons of rock climbing gyms over 45 years old. Also, there are only two rock climbing gyms in Philadelphia, Go Vertical, at North Penn Street, and Philadelphia Rock Gym, in East Falls, both of which are subject to crowding. Other facilities are inconveniently located in Oaks, Valley Township, and Wyncote.

Many people are unaware that there is some great outdoor climbing relatively nearby–Haycock Mountain near Ottsville, Governor Stables in Elizabethtown, and Ralph Stover in Bucks County. When rock climbing fans can’t devote the time for frequent day trips to these locations, they like to practice indoors. It’s hard to climb outdoors in wet, windy, and cold weather, and worse in winter. This facility would be open year round to climbers of all ages and varying skill levels with a inspiring view that looks towards heaven.

1. Vestibule | 2. Front Desk | 3. Climbing Area | 4. Altar | 5. Conditioning Room | 6. Office | 7. Storage | 8. Women’s Locker Room | 9. Men’s Locker Room | 10.Party and Product Demo Room

After climbing one side of the double staircase parallel to Spruce Street, visitors are greeted at the front desk where members will check in or visitors can purchase a day pass. Climbing shoes, harnesses and chalk bag rentals will take place here as well. Upon entrance, an immediate view of the climbing walls are visible, built at various heights down the nave of the church–lower for bouldering and higher for top-roping or lead climbing. The heights and configurations would also be influenced by the windows above, none of which will be covered by the climbing walls.

Each climbing section will be supported by a steel beam that would attach to the existing masonry wall on either side with supporting columns underneath. We want to leave the walls as untouched as possible. There will also be safety padding throughout the floor space to both protect the climbers and the flooring underneath. All of the existing pews in the chapel will be moved offsite for preservation and storage.

From the floor plans it looked like there are niches in the walls behind the pews, however this is difficult to confirm. If these recesses are anywhere near an ideal seating height they will be filled with benches. Climbing is the type of sport where there is a constant cycle of intense physical activity and immediate rest. Taking a break is what makes climbing very social, although the climbing itself can be quite social as well if a group of people are working together to try to figure out solutions to a specific climb.

As visitors walk through the climbing area, they first pass under an arch, two climbing islands, and then through two rows of walls attached at the sides of the chapel’s nave. Positioning the walls instead of the climbing islands at the end provides a view of the alter and apse, which will be completely preserved for historical purposes. Past the alter and apse is a conditioning room. Climbers often do pull-up training and other specialized exercises to build up their strength. This room will be dedicated training and portable safety climbing pads will be provided. Although this space is at the rear of the church, there are still plenty of windows to provide some natural light.

We also found ways to utilize the spaces surrounding the central section of the building. On the west side of the chapel is a small office and storage room at the north end. An operations manager will use the space for organizing outdoor field trips to climbing destinations as well as membership outreach and reservations for group events, like corporate team building, and parties.

View of the sanctuary and the network of Cerulean blue parachute cord of Ci-Lines, a site-specific installation by artist Aaron Asis that reactivated St. Andrew’s Chapel for three weekends in March 2015 | Photo: Michael Bixler

Past the office is the women’s locker room. All the preexisting bathrooms on this floor will be updated and we designed the locker rooms around them. The women’s locker room features two bathroom stalls and three showers that will be especially attractive to early risers who will be heading to work immediately after climbing. Down the center of the first room is a row of lockers with benches on either side. There is a small staircase that leads to a small balcony on the second floor which will be closed off to the public. Most of the second floor is an vertical extension of the central section of the chapel.

South of the women’s locker room, but accessible closer to the front desk, is the men’s locker room. Here we kept the existing bathroom and added three showers. Again down the center of the room, and across from the existing fireplace, is a set of lockers with benches on either side. The stairs behind the showers leads to both the same second floor balcony as the women’s locker room and a small area that overlooks the locker room itself. Vertical circulation could be easily closed off in this case as well.

On the west side of the building, upon exiting the front desk area, visitors can walk down a long hallway lined with windows that leads to one of the party rooms. These event spaces will be used mostly for children’s parties or as a central meeting area for outdoor climbing trips. In addition, these rooms are ideal for climbing product demos. Another party room is accessible closer to the apse of the structure. The staircase between these rooms leads to the lower level which will remain mostly vacant. Since there is an entrance from the outside to this staircase, this level could be used for equipment storage or restroom overflow. Currently, there is only a men’s restroom down there, but there is ample space for a women’s restroom to be added.

St. Andrew’s Chapel raised an interesting challenge for adaptive reuse, but once a possible use was established for schematic design the floor plan fell into place. The only wall we removed throughout the entire space was a partition that created a small hallway west of the northern party room. Other than that change, we worked with the layout of the existing space in an effort to preserve and respect the interior architecture. Fortunately, both the interior and exterior of the lovely building has been well maintained.


About the Author

Shila Scarlet Griffith, LEED AP Shila is an NCIDQ certified and LEED accredited interior designer that also practices interior architecture. She holds both a bachelor’s degree in interior design and master’s degree in sustainable design from Philadelphia University. In 2012, Shila started SG23, a small studio that offers design services spanning interior design, graphic design and website design and development. She also teaches a design studio in the continuing education program at Moore College of Art and Design.


  1. Davis says:

    It would be tragic to see the magnificent choir stalls and canopies removed or destroyed. Tragic.

  2. Jenna Brennan says:

    Wow! Is this definite? I LOVE this building. What a creative reuse of space!!

  3. Leonard Eisenstein says:

    it is both outrageous and disgraceful that a blessed religious institution should be
    converted to a gymnasium. it should be reconsecrated as either a Lutheran or Episcopal

  4. Jen says:

    This is sad. It should be preserved. ☹️

  5. Charles says:

    This magnificent chapel should be a place of worship, tranquility, and meditation. As such, it would be a real asset to University City. It could also be a center for sacred concerts. All of these would honor its original purpose.

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