Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 35
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: October 1997 Volume 35 Number 4, Pages 153–156
The Baptist Building at Valley Forge
It has been referred to as the "Baptist Vatican" on one extreme, and the "Holy Donut" on the other. On occasion it is referred to as the "round building across from the Sheraton," or the "Baptist Aspirin," and by some of its constituency as "headquarters". Perhaps the most unflattering, yet humorous reference, is the description given by airline pilots who use it as a landmark. To them, because of the arched building adjacent to the round structure, it is referred to as the "Elephant's Toilet Seat".
Officially, at its beginning it was the offices of the American Baptist Convention. Because the word "convention" was often misunderstood by those outside the structures of the denomination, and because of changes in the denominational organization in the 1970s, it became the offices of the "American Baptist Churches, USA". In 1994, in an effort to more appropriately describe the intent of the building, it became known as the "Mission Center of the American Baptist Churches".
Perhaps a word of caution at this point would help one to understand the fine points in the name changes. Baptists, historically, and despite the behavior of some Baptists today, are champions of autonomy. The Valley Forge offices, even though they are seen by some as the "headquarters" of the denomination, are not that. The term "headquarters" usually implies a place of decision. This is not the case for Baptists. While the offices do some things on behalf of the 5000 or so churches that make up the denomination, it has no authority over those churches, and can only set direction as approved by a representative process.
Architect Vincent G. Kling was asked to design the facility. His work was cut out for him. This had to be more than a building. It had to be an idea, with theological as well as artistic overtones. It had to catch up the spiritual heritage and distinctiveness of Baptist belief and polity, and at the same time admit frankly that God is not specifically a Baptist. When the design was finished, the architect called it a "statement". Asked what he meant by statement, he replied that the building says something. What does it say? "Unity and strength."
The design needed to provide office space for a total staff of 700 persons, conference rooms for meetings, a cafeteria, a chapel and a printing plant. The alternatives recognized as possibilities for the facility were a high rise, a campuslike setting featuring a combination of buildings, and a rectangular structure housing all the various needs.
The high rise was rejected because it was seen as being a symbol of a hierarchy, and the campus concept because the separate buildings housing the various functions were seen as a symbol of division rather than unity. The rectangular structure was dismissed for a very practical reason - the distances between offices.
So it was determined that the simplest of all architectural forms, a circle, was the answer. The circle was the classic religious symbol of unity. The concept of a circular office building was seen as efficiently functional. It provided each agency with needed space and joined them together -- without giving dominance to anyone -- with the smallest amount of corridor and the shortest distance one to the other. Privacy and freedom of movement were preserved.
The importance of bringing these offices to the new national center would invite the kind of collaberation that had never been possible with the offices in many locations. Dr. Edwin Tuller, the General Secretary of the denomination at the time of the construction, said "The move to Valley Forge will give us an opportunity to plan, work and serve together as never before."
Was the vision realized? Those who have served in the denominational offices since 1962 would probably offer a two-sided response. The fact of greater cooperation and collaboration would be affirmed. At the same time, it would be recognized that many of the "walls" that existed when the offices were scattered continued to stand. Habits of more than a hundred years of separate existence were difficult to overcome. Being in one location, however, provided the opportunity to tear down those walls, so in many respects the hope was, and continues to be, realized.
It is most appropriate to say that the role of the Mission Center is to motivate and coordinate the life of the denomination.
The issue can be confused even further by indication that the facility is, in reality, not the offices of a denomination, but rather the offices of five separate denominational organizations that function autonomously -yet at the same time cooperatively. These organizations include three units known as program boards. They are the "Board of Educational Ministries", the "Board of National Ministries," and the "Board of International Ministries". The Boards are often referred to as agencies. The two other organizations located in the building are the "Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board," and the "Office of the General Secretary". The offices of the American Baptist Churches of Pennsylvania and Delaware, one of 34 regional organizations that are a part of the denominational structure, are also located in the building.
But the question still remains: what is that building by the Turnpike, and how did it get there?
Following the Second World War, the national Baptist organizations described above were located at several different sites in New York City, and at three locations in Philadelphia. In 1948, the then Northern Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches), started talking about bringing all the offices together in one location for a sense of unity and efficiency. The conversations went on for ten years, through a series of study groups and committees. In 1958, the, by then, American Baptists, at their annual convention, rejected motions (two) for a New York City site, and two for a Chicago location. On a fifth ballot they voted to establish their "headquarters" in Philadelphia, and specifically at the location in Valley Forge.
Valley Forge came into the picture in 1957 when the Board of Education and Publication purchased a 27-acre site for the constructiion of a building in which they might unify their administrative and publishing activities, then located in three Philadelphia buildings. Philadelphia had meaning for Baptists. It was a meeting ground for North and South, both for the nation as in the Continental Congress, and for Baptists, as in the Triennial Convention founded in 1814 to support Adoniram Judson, Missionary to Burma. Valley Forge carried on both traditions, and offered space enough for needed expansion. Hence, Dr. Richard Hoiland, on behalf of the Board of Educational Ministries, offered the site as a location for the denominational offices. Ground was broken for the structure in July of 1960. The building was dedicated, and use initiated, in May of 1962.
What of the present? American Baptists, along with the majority of major denominations, have suffered from static, if not declining, membership and income. Downsizing started in some of the denominational agencies in the mid1970s. By 1997 the staff of the national offices was approximately half of the 700 once envisioned. A portion of the office space is now rented to nondenominational organizations. The printing plant was closed in 1985. The many printing needs of the denomination are now handled by outside contractors. The chapel planned for construction in the center of the circle was never realized.
Changes have occurred over the years. But the expectation that coming together at Valley Forge would provide opportunity for planning, working and serving together, was, and continues to be, realized. As the American Baptist Mission Center, it continues to motivate and coordinate the world-wide mission of American Baptists.
[This article was written by John L. "Bud" Carroll of Berwyn, Pa. He served as a staff member of the American Baptist Board of Educational Ministries from 1963 to 1993, retiring as Deputy Executive Director of that organization. Portions of this article are from "Statement in Stone" published by Judson Press, and are used by permission. Additional information regarding the American Baptist Mission Center, and Baptist history in general, is available from the American Baptist Historical Society located in Section C on the second floor of the Center.]
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