The exterior of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.

photo by: Philadelphia School of Circus Arts

May 29, 2018

Circus Sanctuary: The Showstopping Rehabilitation of a Philadelphia Church

  • By: Nicholas Som

Shana Kennedy didn’t realize how perfectly churches matched what she was looking for until she toured one for sale, and gazed up at its sanctuary’s towering heights. The high ceilings weren’t unexpected; for a property to even qualify as a potential new home for the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts (PSCA), they were a minimum requirement. But what Kennedy hadn’t counted on was the sense of awe and wonderment that the space evoked in her. Warehouses and industrial buildings, which Kennedy and her husband Greg toured many of over the course of their four-year search, simply couldn’t replicate the grandeur of an old church.

“At every place that we looked that wasn’t a church, we felt really uninspired,” says Kennedy, executive director of the PSCA. “We realized that part of what the circus arts are about is feeling excited and inspired by human potential. As soon as we started looking at churches, we knew that was where we needed to be.”

Kennedy’s epiphany refocused their efforts, and now, nine months after moving into the former St. Madeleine Sophie Church in Philadelphia’s West Mount Airy neighborhood, it’s clearer than ever that taking the unconventional route of rehabilitating a church was the right decision.

“There were a lot of developers who wanted to buy this building, but what they would’ve done with the space is kind of a mystery,” Kennedy says. “It’s been a fine experience for us to undergo this conversion. As much as possible, we want to be able to tell the story of what this building was before.”
The sanctuary of the St. Madeleine Church before renovations.

photo by: Philadelphia School of Circus Arts

The sanctuary of St. Madeleine Sophie Church prior to rehabilitation.

The rectory of the former St. Madeleine Church.

photo by: Philadelphia School of Circus Arts

The church's rectory, now occupied by Give and Take Jugglers.

St. Madeleine’s story began in the late 1800s, when a small white three-bedroom house was constructed at the site. Around the turn of the 20th century, the house and its grounds passed into the hands of a local shoe polish baron, who built a larger home at a more elevated location on the lot. Finally, the Catholic church purchased the property and constructed St. Madeleine in 1925, converting the larger house into a rectory. It served the community for nearly a century, becoming a cornerstone of the neighborhood. When St. Madeleine was placed on the market in 2017 after declining attendance had resulted in the consolidation of multiple parishes, Kennedy leapt at the opportunity.

One of Kennedy’s primary goals was preserving the history of the century-old property. The parish had already removed everything of religious significance, including the pews and stations of the cross, but the two old houses on the lot still stood. Instead of allowing them to deteriorate, the Kennedys brought in juggling school Give and Take Jugglers to set up shop in the former rectory, creating an entire campus dedicated to the circus arts.

For the PSCA’s needs, the main church building would more than suffice, and demanded their full attention. Though its sanctuary offered plenty of vertical space to practice aerial acrobatics (40 feet, to be exact), the massive concrete arches could not support the necessary rigging systems. Kennedy’s solution was to install steel beams between the arches, ensuring the safety of the performers.

Much of the rest of the building had fallen into disrepair, as well. The building contained several classrooms that would be converted into office space, so Kennedy and her team tore away old carpeting, refinished the hardwood floors underneath, and replaced broken curved windows in kind. While significant work remains, including the church’s highly inefficient oil heating and steam radiation systems, classes have proceeded undisturbed. Kennedy estimates that renovations will be fully complete within the next two years.

The renovated sanctuary of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.

photo by: Philadelphia School of Circus Arts

The ceiling of the sanctuary retains its decorative bright red triangle patterns, whose origin and meaning remains a mystery.

The DIY nature of the rehabilitation kept its final price tag manageable. All told, the project came in under $100,000, softening the blow of the $1.2 million it took to purchase the former church. (Give and Take Jugglers paid $550,000 for the former rectory). But even more impressive than the Kennedys’ cost-cutting abilities is the breakneck speed at which they turned the project over. A mere four days after purchasing the property in early September of 2017, the school opened its doors to its first students.

Though this stunning feat was greatly aided by the head start the Kennedys received, which allowed them to begin installing the sanctuary’s steel beams that August, it would not have been possible without the efforts of around 30 volunteers over moving-in weekend. To Kennedy, it’s a testament to the welcoming nature of the Mount Airy neighborhood, and to the kind of impact that dynamic spaces like circus schools can have.

“We were nervous that the neighborhood would be touchy about changes made to the building, but they have been so excited,” says Kennedy. “When we moved in, we thought a lot about how in some ways it’s sad that [church] community couldn’t continue. But the way we think about it is that we’re bringing a new community in here. This is a community of artists and families and students that still builds bonds, and still has the opportunity for special rituals and moments of connection.”

A trampoline at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.

photo by: Philadelphia School of Circus Arts

A trampoline now sits at the location of the former church's altar.

Expanding the idea of what a community can look like in the modern day is something Kennedy takes great pride in. At the same time, the PSCA has played a role in redefining what a circus can look like in the modern day. While traditional big top circuses such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have faltered, the PSCA specializes in what’s known as contemporary circus. Popularized by Cirque du Soleil and other famous acts, contemporary circus differs from the original in two major ways: no animals (traditional circuses are often criticized for their mistreatment of animals), and an emphasis on creative expression.

“[Contemporary circus] is theatrical, it’s artistic, it’s smaller companies doing edgy, interesting work,” Kennedy says. “We think of circus arts now as a vehicle for storytelling, the same way the theater, or opera, or ballet is a way to tell a story. It’s not really about the tricks anymore—it’s about what the artist can communicate.”

“We think of circus arts now as a vehicle for storytelling, the same way the theater, or opera, or ballet is a way to tell a story”

Shana Kennedy

As it turns out, a lot can be conveyed with a stunning juggling or aerial silk display. Contemporary circus performers weave epic tales populated by vivid, colorful characters, or use thematic elements to unite seemingly unrelated acts. They are spectacles limited only by their creators’ imaginations, and audiences are responding to them. Kennedy has seen contemporary circus grow exponentially since founding the PSCA in 2000, especially gaining traction in Europe and Canada. “There’s just a huge range of what people can do now with the basics of acrobatics and aerials and juggling, and there’s a lot that can be expressed with it,” she says.

And to reflect the evolution of the circus arts from sea lions to storytelling, what better place to locate the PSCA than a rehabilitated church? Though it may bear only a mild resemblance to its past selves, the circus today is thriving and better equipped for the future than ever—just like the building the PSCA now calls home.

Nicholas Som is an editorial assistant at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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