Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
Recently, a lone workman was seen dabbing beige paint onto the peeling neoclassical façade of the Rotunda, one of West Philadelphia’s most prominent performance spaces. The 102-year-old former church near the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus, which has hosted everything from D.I.Y. zinefests to a concert by R&B pop icon John Legend, is getting a face-lift.
“I’m doing the windows next,” said the worker. “But we’re only painting the windows you can see from the street.”
But even a cursory examination of the crumbling masonry, pockmarked brick patio and peeling interior dome shows that the venue could use more than a half a paint job.
Penn, which bought the Rotunda as part of a “strategic acquisition” in 1996 and created the foundation that programs the venue, likes to hold up the community arts center as a symbol of its goodwill toward neighbors, whose relationship with the Ivy has been tense at times. But, despite investing millions in developing a commercial hub at 40th and Walnut streets, the institution has taken an equivocal approach to stewarding the 35,000-square-foot Rotunda.
One indication of that is the fact that most events take place in the rear third of the building, formerly church offices. Most visitors never set foot inside the titular rotunda, which is known as the sanctuary. “The sanctuary’s been moth-balled for 10 or 15 years, because to use it on a permanent basis you’d have to do some dramatic infrastructure improvements,” says Ed Datz, executive director of real estate at Penn. Although arts groups like the FringeArts festival occasionally get temporary occupancy permits to use the sanctuary, there is no strategic plan for the space. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that it has to be an entertainment venue,” Datz says. Officially, Penn would like to lease it for “office or entertainment or retail” use. But they do not actively advertise it, nor have they invested in improvements to attract commercial tenants.
Datz acknowledges that any potential tenant “would have to invest a lot of capital” to bring the sanctuary up to code, noting a lack of wheelchair access, peeling paint and minor damage from the 2011 earthquake. Penn has no plans to invest such capital.
Datz won’t say how much the current renovations are costing, but refers to it as “a phased project.”
The other half of the building’s windows would be painted during phase two, next spring.
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