February 5, 2021
Week of Epiphany 4

Dear ULS Community:

In comparison to last week this one was relatively quiet, and for me, focused primarily on meetings and working from home. The arrival of the big Nor’easter last weekend was exciting for this Californian, but though a reasonably big storm, was not very disruptive of our Zoom ways of working. When you’re working virtually and from home, there’s really no such thing as a snow day! But we did close offices on both campuses for a couple of days, and mail delivery was delayed as well.

Even beyond snow removal, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ULS campus facilities this week: property and buildings and upkeep, and how we manage all those. Both the Philadelphia and Gettysburg campuses are treasures for us, and we need to take care of them both because of their usefulness and their intrinsic value. On both campuses we have a historic legacy to protect in parts of our built environment. But in each case, we only use a portion of the available space, both indoor and outdoor.

In very clear ways the campuses are distinct, too: the Philadelphia campus, relatively compact, verdant, and somewhat cloistered, has a distinct physical feeling within its cluster of gray stone buildings. It has its own history and architectural value, but among the wonderful array of historic buildings in Philadelphia and even in Germantown, it doesn’t stand out as exceptional (except to us, and the immediate neighbors!) But it is in a lovely and compact neighborhood where there is potential for growth and development, especially for housing.

Discussions about how to use the Mt. Airy campus best are as old as our occupancy of the site over a century ago, and the archives are full of plans that never reached fruition. Now, with a modern sense of historic preservation, both our older buildings and those that came with the property (the Gowen mansion part of Hagen and the historic part of the old Refectory), and the ones we built for our own purposes, the Old Dorm part of Brossman, the Schaeffer-Ashmead Chapel, and Krauth Memorial Library, have some historic status of their own, as does (apparently) the old power plant. A local survey of architectural heritage has also identified Reed House as deserving of protection. But within those limits, we have some freedom to identify how to use our building and land assets in the best way to meet our needs and further our mission. Long before my arrival, the seminary decided to divest itself of the houses on Boyer Street; now we have a set of “near neighbors” who are deeply invested in our decision-making about campus use. I am trying to keep them close and well-informed as to any thinking we are doing.

I have nothing concrete to report today, but I want to let everybody know that the thinking goes on. We had a walk-around last week with architects and developers to see more clearly the space and building challenges. We are trying to sort out what we think we will need in the future, what we can afford to do, and how we can partner with others to derive greater material benefit from what we have. My principal desire is that we retain a beautiful and useful core campus of our four main buildings (Krauth, Brossman, Hagan and the Chapel), and that we have provision somewhere for sufficient student housing of a kind students would want to live in. If money were no object, the conversion of Hagan to housing and a student center would be ideal—but at the moment the costs of that seem discouraging. Wiedemann, though still very functional, would also be extremely expensive to remodel into the kind of housing we need—and it has to be admitted that (though substantial) it is not our most beautiful structure. But we’re working on all the options, and I am in conversation with our donors and friends. As things develop I will keep you informed.

The Gettysburg campus has also been a focus of mine in these days, after spending a lot of time there last week. It is a great treasure in other ways, with three “witness buildings” that played an important part in the historic battle, a lovely and spacious park-like setting, and other handsome and stately buildings. But it is also much more than we need, and some of the buildings we use constantly (especially the three student apartment buildings) need a lot of work. Our operations director, Kyle Barger, has been in Gettysburg all this week focusing on what needs to be done most immediately, and on bringing our Gettysburg-area maintenance staffing up to full strength. There is good progress on both fronts, though when addressing deferred maintenance, we will need to balance urgency against available funding.

The long-range planning in Gettysburg is less urgent, I think. The relatively low real estate values there (at least compared with Germantown) make any hasty sale of property unwise. Our best bet—I believe—Is to partner with the community in any kind of campus development, along the model that brought the YWCA to the edge of campus some years ago. We also have partners in the Seminary Ridge Museum and the American Battlefield Trust—the latter, in particular, is anxious to acquire battlefield property for the sake of keeping it undeveloped. From our perspective that’s not a bad thing either, because it keeps our setting open and beautiful. We expect the Adams County Historical Society, which is building a new home for itself, to stop needing Wolf House eventually, which opens up even more space and structure for us to use to ULS’s advantage.

Again, if money were no object, a new, up-to-date student housing and community building closer to the Gettysburg campus core of Wentz Library, Valentine Hall, and the Church of the Abiding Presence would be ideal (perhaps on the site of the currently unused Refectory)—but that’s only in the realm of my imagination right now. I will soon be occupying Lewars House more fully and more often, which at least brings one otherwise empty building back on-line. Again, as things develop, I will let you know. All of these property issues are challenging, but they come from a place of strength; on both campuses we have more—and not less—than we need. Any use will need to reflect our expectations for our own future as an institution and be of long-term benefit to us.

In other news, we mark more changes in our staff: two new colleagues arrive in Institutional Advancement and Finance and there is a departure as well. Today, I wanted to lift up today the retirement of Patricia (“Pat”) Barringer, a faithful member of our community for many years, and her conscientiousness and—above all, her cheerfulness—will be very much missed. She was one of the first staff members I met when I arrived on campus last fall, and she and I bonded over the fact we were often the only people in Brossman early and late. I am so glad we have had her with us, and I will miss her very much. I wish her well in her retirement, which is being celebrated by her colleagues today.

I sense a calmness falling over us this month: we know what we have to do to get through another pandemic semester, though nobody’s thrilled about more Zoom classes; we anticipate a better day with the vaccines on the way, but we know that yet more patience and vigilance will be required; and even though the national political drama continues to unfold, I think there is some sense that things are falling into more orderly and predictable lines now. I welcome the calm; I embrace the sadness that the pandemic and its losses leave us with; and I look forward to the blessings of a holy Lent and a joyful Easter.

In this Sunday’s gospel reading from Mark 1, we see Jesus healing the sick and proclaiming his message—two distinct but interlocking activities. Healing others brings him attention and credibility; but he is clear that communicating his message of and from God is what he is out to do. We, in a smaller sense, are doing that too, as the church and our seminary take care of others in the midst of this great and deadly pandemic, but never forgetting that our primary purpose is always to be witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

May God bless you and keep you safe.

In Christ,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
President
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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