1883 church a transcendent corporate headquarters

A 65-foot-high vaulted wooden ceiling towers over employees at furniture dealer CFI, at 22d and Chestnut.
A 65-foot-high vaulted wooden ceiling towers over employees at furniture dealer CFI, at 22d and Chestnut. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: August 04, 2012

Sunlight breaks through the majestic stained-glass windows that frame the limestone altar, where no one is praying.

Instead, flipping through his iPhone, Robert Chevalier is sitting in the lobby of Corporate Facilities Inc., his firm's headquarters, the former nave of the deconsecrated Church of the New Jerusalem and an impressive model for adaptive reuse of a historic building.

In 1985 Chevalier founded CFI, a high-end furniture dealer; locally, it is the sole representative of Western Pennsylvania-based Knoll Inc., known for its modern museum-worthy designs.

CFI has customized work spaces for some of the largest corporations (Bank of America, IBM) and nonprofit organizations (American Cancer Society, Philabundance among them), as well as top cultural centers - the company furnished the office and public spaces of the new Barnes Foundation on the Parkway.

The Collingswood-bred executive also owns Boomerang in Pennsauken, a showroom carrying pre-owned office furniture.

A bon vivant, Chevalier is known for his polite nature, impeccable wardrobe, and enjoyment of the luxuries in life: A perfect day for the 65-year-old would be spent watching the sun set over the Caribbean with a fine bottle of red.

Plus, he shares a passion for period architecture with his wife of 15 years, Jan, an interior designer at the firm.

For years, CFI's post was in an old brewery in the city's Northern Liberties. As the company grew, the couple went searching for a larger, but equally rich building.

"We were really interested in another old structure," says Jan, 52, who hails from Hillsdale, Mich.

So it piqued Chevalier's interest when his broker called one day saying the church was for sale.

The couple, who live in Moorestown, fell in love with the stately structure (which had already been renovated for corporate use during the 1980s), bought the building, and moved CFI across town in 2005.

Occupying the northeast corner of 22d and Chestnut, the church was modeled after Gothic cathedrals in Europe and erected for the followers of Swedish philosopher and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg. It was designed by architect Theophilus P. Chandler Jr., who founded the University of Pennsylvania's department of architecture. Ground was broken in 1881 and the church was completed and dedicated on March 11, 1883.

But like many religious organizations, a shrinking fellowship forced the leaders to reconsider the future of the church during the mid-'80s.

"The church elders really set out to protect the church," Chevalier says.

Working closely with preservation groups, the congregation found visionary developers to acquire the property, who would not raze it for another austere skyscraper. Local architect Mark B. Thompson - known for such projects as Fairmount Water Works and Belmont Mansion - was retained to adapt the building into commercial space.

It cost $3 million to convert the deconsecrated church and parish house into a 20,000-square-foot respectful office facility. In 1990 it became the corporate headquarters for Graduate Health System and remained so for more than a decade. Then, an advertising group was the tenant for a short time before CFI moved in.

Rising on a lavishly landscaped courtyard, the brownstone-faced building is christened with ogival arches and an ornate Vermont slate roof, where pinnacles and spires rise upward.

"This is credibility for my clients. It tells them that what we do for a living is important to us," says Chevalier.

Beyond the massive church doors, the view is even better.

A 65-foot-high vaulted wooden ceiling dominates the cruciform-shaped church, supported by carved granite buttresses. Dramatic cherry wood entablatures border more arches in the grand lobby. Gargoyle angels preside from pedestals.

A Roosevelt organ was removed from the days of worship, but the gilded pipe casings remain and hang next to the altar, lending more theatrics.

During the original restoration, two more floors were added to make four levels. The floors are accessed by a circular staircase fashioned of cast aluminum and cherry veneer, where one of four antique chandeliers on the premises glows from above. There is also an elevator.

Beyond the reception area is a floor-to-ceiling glass partition separating a vast work space with half-walled wooden cubicles. At the doorway, a vintage Columbia high-wheel bicycle greets visitors.

"It's almost fate that the bike would end up here. It was built the same year as the church," Chevalier says of the bike that he won at an auction for $6,500.

More offices for CFI's 50 employees round out the second and third levels, where balconies offer sweeping views of the grand lobby.

The subterranean level includes an employee area, a kitchen, and a conference room, where prints of the New Jersey Pine Barrens line the walls.

Plans are in the works to retrofit the first floor of the 5,500-square-foot parish house - now CFI's executive offices - into an expansive one-bedroom apartment, with great room, gourmet kitchen, and formal dining.

The apartment will be for out-of-town visitors, or to host dinner parties, small and large, something the Chevaliers relish.

Although the Chevaliers lucked out in not having to undergo any major alterations to the offices, their personal touches are everywhere. Oriental rugs lie across floors and sculptures top off tables. Simple yet functional furniture like unfussy stools, square chairs, and two-seater sofas in leathers, metals, and woods are arranged throughout the premises, most coming from some of the 200 companies the firm represents.

"Less is more sometimes," says Jan. "Good contemporary design is timeless."

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