A West Grove landmark gets new life
By J. Chambless
The exterior of the 1873 chapel remains unchanged, but renovations have transformed the space inside.
By John Chambless
Standing at the heart of West Grove,
the 1873 chapel, rectory and convent formerly occupied by the
Assumption B.V.M. Church are central to the borough's identity.
Richard Walkup knows that very well, and when he purchased the three
buildings last year after the church relocated to a new building, he
knew that any plans he made had to preserve the historic nature of
Opening the huge, oak doors of the chapel last week for a tour, Walkup beamed at the progress that's already been made on the building he has renamed The Sanctuary at West Grove Chapel, a site for worship, wedding receptions, parties, concerts or other events. The rollout has been gradual, with a full social media push just beginning to take shape.
“When I bought it in January 2018, there were still priests living in the rectory,” Walkup said. “And some nuns and priests were often staying in the convent. The chapel had been vacant about six years, and the plaster ceiling, ornate cornice and crown molding were falling down.”
The heavenly fresco painted on the ceiling, however, was remarkably untouched by the decay, and it has been carefully preserved in the new space. The raised floor that once supported the altar has become a stage, the pews have been removed, and the floor redone so that the site is ideal for parties of up to 150 people. But Walkup has big plans that go well beyond simply renting the space.
“The pews were removed so we could re-do the floor, but we're making them portable to use if you have a seated event like a religious service, movie or concert,” he said. “When the church was de-commissioned, the stained glass windows were taken out, so I put in all new insulated windows.” Above the soaring windows are rounded panels with applied film that look just like stained glass. The windows feature historical organizations that are near to Walkup's heart.
“I've lived in Chester County all my life,” he said. “I love West Grove – it's a little gem. And I love historic architecture.”
Walkup lives at Broad Run Farm in Marshalton, a 1700s home that he has carefully updated. He is the president and owner of Forest Manor Property Group, which specializes in real estate and multi-family housing in the county. He's also the chairman of the Radnor Hunt Horse Trials, and a proud member of the Pennsylvania Society of the Sons of the Revolution, with roots that go back to the founding of the nation.
But the West Grove Chapel project is near and dear to his heart. “This building had some significant maintenance issues, and it was expensive to keep up. It was a financial liability for the Archdiocese,” he explained. “The roof had failed and all the plaster was damaged. All the pews were covered with plaster and paint. It was just a mess, but the building's bones were good.”
With his construction resources, turning the chapel into a showplace meant putting on a new roof, painting, re-plastering and adding air conditioning, but he left the original pendant lighting as a nod to the building's past. The electrical and heating systems had been upgraded not too long before he bought the chapel, so they're in good working condition. And he left the rows of pews in the small balcony.
The West Grove Chapel is an upscale alternative to the rental facilities in the region – VFWs and fire halls, as well as a couple of remaining country clubs. The building can be turned into whatever a client wants, and Walkup said the community has embraced it as a site for quinceañera parties for young girls. “I like to think we're going to be serving the local community better,” he said. “We're planning date nights. I'm thinking about Thursday night dinner-and-a-movie events. We could have a local restaurant cater,” he said, mentioning the nearby Twelves and Brothers Pizza, but there is also space out back for a food truck, right by the former kitchen. There's plenty of public parking in the municipal lot, a block or so away.
The West Grove Borough Council has been behind the renovation from the start. “They held a meeting here when the space was first ready to go,” Walkup said. “The borough has been very helpful. Borough manager Greg McCummings loves the project.”
The former convent attached to one side of the chapel is an ideal overnight accommodation for out-of-town wedding guests, Walkup said, or a place to prepare the wedding party. The building has bedrooms and bathrooms on each floor, and the furnishing process is underway.
The former rectory, a brick Victorian building on the other side of the chapel, is being turned into a bed-and-breakfast, with bedrooms that will be themed – fox hunting, or Longwood, or the Wyeths, Walkup said. The dark oak banisters and trim, the pocket doors and 1800s fireplaces have been carefully preserved. One parlor has pressed-tin walls that are in perfect condition. Beside the rectory is a shady, open lot that Walkup is eyeing as a site for outdoor weddings or receptions, possibly with an archway for the bride and groom to take photos in.
“The steeple restoration was an exciting project,” Walkup said, pointing to the highest point in West Grove. “A year ago, it was rusted and falling apart. The original bell is still in there, and one of my priorities was to get it working. I got distracted by other stuff, but that will definitely happen.
“Everybody's been so supportive,” he added. “People just love it. Neighbors stop by to see what we're doing. We can't wait.”
For more information about the The Sanctuary at West Grove Chapel (107 W. Evergreen St., West Grove), visit www.facebook.com/westgroveevents.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email email@example.com.