History of Tenth's Architecture

by Matthew White, Dot Boersma, and Jennifer Barfield February 11, 2009

Tenth Presbyterian Church dates back to the early nineteenth century when Philadelphia was the second largest city in the country. At that time the entire city was quite small, surrounded by farmlands and situated between two rivers, the Schuylkill and the Delaware.

The original Tenth Church, founded in 1829, was located on the northeast corner of Twelfth and Walnut Streets. It established a daughter church in 1855-1856 called the West Spruce Street Presbyterian Church on the southwest corner of Seventeenth and Spruce Streets. The two churches worked together, with the ministers exchanging pulpits each week. Due to membership decline in the original Tenth Church caused by population shifts, the two churches merged in 1893 at the Seventeenth and Spruce Streets location, taking the name of the older church (Tenth Presbyterian Church).

Tenth Church was designed by John McArthur, Jr., the architect who later had the distinction of being chosen to design City Hall. He was a member of the West Spruce Street Presbyterian Church and also its first deacon. Like a great number of architects at the time, he was able to design competently in a variety of European styles. Tenth's exterior is a free adaptation of the Lombard Romanesque, a style of architecture prevalent in Western Europe from the ninth to twelfth centuries, with round headed windows and entrance openings, pilaster strips (column-like structures that project only slightly from the wall), corbel table (the parts that project just below the eaves), a roof crest, and two steeples in differing architectural styles. The monochromatic brick and brownstone (much of the “brownstone” was actually wood painted with sand paint) façade is characteristic of the architectural style. The building has a portico front, opening into a narthex (vestibule). The east tower with its spire rose to 250 feet in height. The west tower and spire were 120 feet high. When it was built, Tenth Church was the tallest structure in the city. (See the Wikipedia article on Philadelphia's tallest buildings, and note the mention of Tenth.) The spires were built of white pine. Over the years, storm damage and resulting structural problems necessitated their removal in 1912. The neighbors petitioned Tenth to remove the towers because they could not get insurance for fear of the steeples falling on their properties.

The two-story Sunday School and Lecture Building (the Middle Building) attached to the south side of the Sanctuary Building was also constructed of brick as designed by John McArthur, Jr. The Lecture Room (today known as Reception Hall) was completed first. Originally it was furnished with pews facing a pulpit at the west end of the room; it did not have the two center support columns, which were added in the 1980’s. The congregation met here while the sanctuary was being completed.

The Sanctuary, or Audience Room, was originally highly ornamented Italianate. Below the vaulted coffered ceiling were white pine archivolts with perforated panels. The Sanctuary was originally lit with gas fixtures. Its galleries were supported by slender cast iron columns extending to the roof. These columns are hidden within the plaster columns and still support the structure today. The original pews had doors, and pew rent was charged.

1893 Renovation

In 1893, the notable Frank Miles Day was hired to perform major alterations in the structure and the interior decoration. (The 245-247 S. 17th Street row homes are a nearby example of his architectural work.) This included lowering the balcony side walls about five feet and changing the roof structure. The interior you see today is in the Neo-Byzantine style, which was fashionable at that time. On the soffits and in the apse are hand-stenciled geometric and symbolic designs that provide a heightened worship experience. The columns were plaster-clad, and color was worked into the wet plaster to achieve the marble-like finish (this faux marble is called scagliola). Their capitals, delicately formed with vines and lotus flowers, and the apse decorated with gold-leaf traceries of multi-sized star-flowers on a dark green background, speak of the Byzantine influence taken from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. A massive 700-pound Venetian-style chandelier was suspended above the center of the Sanctuary. Each link of the chandelier chain weighed five pounds. Other smaller chandeliers hung over the pulpit and from the two southern groin vaults on either side of the pulpit. New white oak pews that matched the other wood furniture were installed. The renovation increased Tenth's seating capacity, necessary to accommodate the additional members from the old Tenth Church. The church is undertaking renovations to restore the space to this period.

Memorial Gifts

Two splendid windows by Tiffany are on either side of the interior Sanctuary front. They were installed as memorial gifts in the 1890’s. The west window shows the Presbyterian coat of arms with its burning bush on backgrounds of blue etched glass with the Scottish thistle and the French fleur-de-lis. The east window, showing a great angel presence in a field of lilies, transmits an arresting atmosphere of peace and tranquility. Its lighter colors of blues, white, and light peach-tans stress the sense of purity and compassion. The window incorporates the use of folded glass in the angel’s garments. The studio signatures can be found in the lower right corner of each window.

The painted cast stone pulpit is a memorial to the Reverend Dr. William P. Breed. The pulpit, platform, and surroundings were designed by architect Frank Miles Day. The daughters of Henry D. Sherrerd had the current baptismal font of Westerly granite placed in the church in 1889, a memorial to their father. On either side of the pulpit are wall-mounted memorials to Morris Patterson (designed by Theophilus Parsons Chandler) and Gustavus S. Benson.

Renovation and Restoration

Renovations in the 1980’s include excavating the Catacombs for a large assembly hall and six classrooms, all equipped with video equipment; enlarging and updating the Fellowship Hall kitchen; improving the Reception Hall and nursery areas; installing a new staircase to the Catacombs, a handicap bathroom; and a handicap ramp. In 1993, reinforcement of the massive sanctuary roof trusses was undertaken and completed. The roof had been bearing down on the side walls from the onset, but roof truss failure was causing the walls to bow out to the point of possible roof collapse. In 1995, the Sanctuary and Middle Building exteriors were cleaned, painted, and bird-proofed. Tiffany window restoration was completed in 1996. In 1997, lightning rods were installed over all the buildings, the Seventeenth Street east entry doors were re-grained to the white oak specification, and the entire three-building facility was rewired to accommodate modern telecommunications equipment. Air conditioning was installed in 1999-2000.

We have inherited a historically registered landmark that must be preserved for generations to come. We seek your active support and interest as we pursue together the continuing efforts to preserve, improve, and enhance this beautiful house of God in Philadelphia.

Other Buildings

Tenth Church has had ties to the Delancey Building from the beginning. The original church lot extended from Spruce Street to Delancey Street. The southern end at Delancey was given to John McArthur, Jr., in payment for his services. He built a four-story dwelling on the property that faced Seventeenth Street (314 S. 17th Street; it is visible in the old photograph of the church in which the church still has its towers and the iron fence extending across the front). The house had a number of different owners and was eventually demolished in 1899 by Arthur and Sophie Remington, who then built the current mansion facing Delancey, designed by Macomb and Calvert, Architects (1701 Delancey Street). For a brief time, this was the home of the late Donald Grey Barnhouse, a long-time minister at Tenth. It eventually became law offices. The church purchased the property in 1982, and it now houses its administrative offices and Bible school classes.

Tenth Church purchased 315 S. Seventeenth Street for use as classroom space in 2000.