The Creation of a Chapel
July 14, 2008
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This article was first published in ARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies, 16.1 (2004) 4-13 and is reprinted here with permission.
This is a story of how a theological school—United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities—built a new chapel. The venture was exciting and demanding. The voices of the community expressed that excitement and made their demands both in celebration and in vigorous debate. What will this chapel look like? Who will build it? How will it be paid for? What theological statement will it make? How will the chapel, as a work of architecture, become holy space for nurturing human souls?
On the morning of December 15, 2000, Mary Bigelow McMillan came to visit the president and the vice-president for development. Molly McMillan embodies the school in a deep and profound way, for she has served as a member and chair of the Board of Trustees, as interim president, as a major donor, and has earned the school’s Master of Divinity degree and has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the seminary. Her message on that Advent day was simple. She wished to give $1,000,000 to enable the school to build a chapel. She asked that it be named in honor of her parents, Charles and Allison Bigelow, who were active church members in House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul. It was a marvelous Christmas gift. It was the beginning of the chapel.
The Board of Trustees voted with full commitment to move ahead with the project and appointed a Planning Committee and a Campaign Committee. Later a Building Committee, a Chapel Use Committee, and a Chapel Programs Committee were created to oversee the plans of the project.
The Campaign Committee was faced with two major concerns. Within the last seven years the school had completed a capital campaign and an endowment campaign—both successful, but institutionally demanding. Would donors absorb a third campaign in such a short time span? The project also increased in costs for, as it unfolded, it came to include not only the chapel and chapel endowment, but extension of the classroom wing to provide a chaplain’s office and restrooms, a new entryway and parking lot, the proverbial cost overruns, as well as renovation of the old chapel as a “smart classroom and conference space.”
Co-chaired by Susan Sands, a board member, and Robert McCrea, a former board member, the Campaign Committee’s work began. The project would cost $4.5 million by the time the leaves of the new maple trees turned to red in the fall of 2004. The Campaign Committee, therefore, became a central arena for decisions regarding the campaign. By the time of the opening, September 14, 2004, the seminary could declare a campaign victory of all funds raised.
The Planning Committee, made up of representatives from different sectors of the school and chaired by David Hanson, a former board member and construction executive, began its work with the primary task of defining the type of chapel the school and its community wanted. Surveys and meetings of the community suggested ideas for the design and use. The committee then focused on the selection of architects and builders. Five groups of architects and, later, construction firms were interviewed. Lively discussion ensued, for each of the architects provided original and often exciting possibilities. The team of Joan Soranno and John Cook of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, Inc. were chosen. The committee was excited about this pair of architects’ innovative designs and their experience with highly original buildings. The two architects, Joan Soranno, the design architect, and John Cook, the technical architect, had recently worked together on the Barker dance studio at the University of Minnesota with its graceful curving forms, and John Cook had been the local on-site project architect ten years ago for the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. Cook and Soranno captured the committee’s imagination by taking its ideas and their own ideas and transforming them into design possibilities that would make the building a signature work of religious architecture. They listened well and drew on the theological vision of the committee and the school. There was a true merging of ideas and vision. Soranno’s previous use of curvilinear forms and graceful movements was an important attraction for the planning group. The ideas and images that emerged in the dialogue between architects and committee were many: use of curvilinear shapes; creation of overlapping forms; use of natural light and its symbolic significance; interplay of glass, wood and stone; creation of gardens; and shapes and relationships of interior and exterior forms and spaces.
Equally, the question of the chapel’s theology and spirituality engaged the committee and the architects. One of the strengths of Soranno was her own capacity to see how physically the interplay of forms, texture, materials and light could be shaped to create a spiritually inviting space—a space that would both enliven and quieten the spirit.
The construction company chosen was M. A. Mortenson Company, a company well known for large projects—for example, the Los Angeles Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry and the new wing of the Walker Art Center—and smaller projects such as the addition and renovation of Westminister Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. The company would provide exceptionally talented people and would play a significant role in controlling costs.
The architects, builders and the committee worked together to shape the chapel physically, aesthetically and theologically. However the architect, Joan Soranno, confronted a major design problem. The chapel was being built on a quadrangle—it would become the third wall of buildings situated on the eastern end of the court. The other two buildings were the classroom wing, a low one-story building, and the library, a large dominant structure. These buildings, built in the early 1960’s, were marked by strong vertical and horizontal lines accented by a light-colored stucco against sand-colored brick that had a strong sense of volume and groundedness. They created a powerful straight-line, box-like presence that suggested a fortress with bays and large spaces of glass. The problem was simple: a chapel that used exterior curves with the possibility of a graceful tapering spire would too easily become a punctuation mark in relationship to the massive character of the other two buildings. The chapel, therefore, needed to be strong on its own terms—a subject with powerful nouns and verbs as well as an exclamation point so that it could have both a Puritan and poetic presence on the landscape. Soranno explained the dilemma and walked the committee through a linear design whose lines included stone towers as tall as the library; narrow and graceful buttress-like glass fins that moved up the west wall wrapping onto the roof of the building framing, in its movement, the west wall roof’s glass panels. She gave to the narthex walls graceful lines through rectilinear roof forms that overlapped each other. The chapel became a building with an amazing balance of strong horizontal and vertical lines, yet a softened floating quality that the narrow fins, sheets of glass, overlapping roofs and stone-textured towers provide in a graceful ship-like presence. This final design offers a strong response to the other buildings and shifts focus away from the library to the chapel while allowing a compatible conversation among all three buildings.
The inside of the building includes the rectilinear stone walls as a part of the inside walls and continues the use of overlapping forms. The inside offers, foremost, a curving ceiling structure through six sets of panels of bigleaf quilted maple. Beginning at the floor, these panels move up the wall then curve in their sweep into a curving ceiling of translucent quilted maple patterns above a hard maple floor. The panels are repeated after breaks of two-feet spaces six different times as they cover the ceiling area. The south stone wall offers an image of the cross through the use of negative space that becomes the centering of the chancel area and draws the eye into the empty space the cross creates.
The materials are their own story. Originally the committee and architects wanted travertine stone from Italy, but cost made such stone prohibitive. So a Minnesota company, ArtStone, that works with pre-cast concrete, was asked to work with the problem. The company, using actual travertine rock brought from Italy, made 50 different casts of stone facings of which 39 were useable and reproduced them in 4000 pre-cast concrete forms, each weighing roughly 70 pounds, and arranged them in patterns of more than 150 diverse facings, giving the wall a human-made stone with a face that offers highly textured surface reflecting the texture and color of travertine stone.
The floor is made of hard maple but the curving ceiling panels, each six feet across, are bigleaf maple with its extraordinary quilted pattern—an unusual maple of large-splayed patterns. It is much more abstract and irregular than birds’ eye maple and gives the panels an elaborate abstract design that contrast in a maze of darker and lighter wood tones. The tree for this ceiling was found from a logging firm in Washington State, was shipped to Germany where it was cut into 1/32nd-inch veneer panels and returned to Indiana where it was sealed inside acrylic and shipped to our cabinet makers, Wilkie Sanderson in Minnesota. The liturgical furniture was designed by Joan Soranno as a gift to the chapel and made by Wilkie Sanderson.
The west wall is made up of wide panels or sheets of glass and the narrow metal fins that frame them. (The style echoes British perpendicular church architecture in which stone mullions frame the dominant perpendicular glass). Glass panels continue as skylights forming sections of the roof that extend above the ceiling and meet the roof that abuts and rests over the processional aisle. The aisle parallels the sanctuary and leads into the worship space. The aisle portion of the roof houses four lantern windows. On the east side of the chapel are frosted clerestory windows with the exception of one clear window that allows in the eastern light—the Easter light of morning. The eastern wall below the clerestory windows is a gallery wall that runs the length of the processional aisle. The glass, then, is central in the chapel with the clerestory windows, roof and lantern windows, windows of the west wall and narthex all bringing in light. The light changes as the day changes as it is mediated through the translucent ceiling. There is an unfolding of light that touches the interior and the worshippers with diverse degrees of brightness and softness of white and yellow tones. Beyond the art on the wall and the paraments, there are few colors beyond the earth tones of wood, wall, and the tides of light that bathe the sanctuary.
The final material that draws the eye is the Iron Range flagstone of the Laura Shannon Meditation Garden. The garden, designed by Shane Coen, has three stone seats, a musclewood tree, stone steps, and a flat stone floor with low sedum plantings between the stones. After entering the building, the garden is suddenly present through a large glass wall that looks out on the garden and the tower. The two large rectangular forms of the tower are juxtaposed to one another, two feet apart, and slightly offset for a more effective aesthetic balance, and contain five deacon chimes that were created in the 1920s and chime the notes: low D, F#, A, B, and D. The cross on the outside tower looks out toward the street. It is made of stone covered in stainless steel like that of the top caps of the tower and mirrors sunlight while blending with the tower.
The material gives the building structure and the design gives it form. Its rising from the earth gives it a presence that the community began to experience. The chapel was, finally, no longer an idea of a religious building, but an actual religious building standing in the landscape.
When the committee worked with the architects around theology and spirituality, spirited conversations took place. There were certain assumptions that worked well for all. The committee wanted the chapel to reflect the transcendent character of God—the God of mystery, power and providential guidance, and to reflect the immanence of God—God as present to us all in a loving, nurturing, and inviting way. This classical formulation of theology was given different means of expression but there remained a strong sense of God as both transcendent and present in human experience.
The changing light breaking throughout the year in different shades and intensities, with its concomitant moving shadows, symbolizes the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit.
The discussion on Christology for the chapel within the community was, however, diverse—ranging from one group of students who questioned the fixed cross in the chapel at all to those who accented the centrality of the cross and desired a processional cross for the liturgical services. The “high Christology” and “low Christology” differences that played themselves out indicated that the chapel would need to accommodate services with different theological emphases which would be appropriate given the ecumenical character of the seminary. For a school founded by the United Church of Christ, yet chartered to be ecumenical in its focus, the chapel required an openness to accommodate different religious traditions. It serves over twenty denominations though the majority of its students are from the United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church, with the Episcopal Church, Unitarian Universalist Association, American Baptists and others including Lutheran and Roman Catholic also being represented. This meant that the liturgical space needed parameters broad enough for people to use liturgical furniture, garments, paraments, worship space, and the location of seating consonant with their own tradition and style of worship. It meant that the design needed to allow for the reconfiguring, again and again, of the worship space and the liturgical activity within that space. So the architects provided a rectangular space of 55 feet by 36 feet with two stone walls: one with a cross carved as negative space in the stone, and the second, a narthex wall, with a baptismal font beside it. These walls are balanced with a west wall looking out on the green through glass and an east wall above the processional aisle that would serve as an exhibition wall and provide a more interior contemplative space. All of this space allows furniture to be focused towards the stone wall with the cross—the chancel space, or the west wall looking outside, or the east wall looking onto works of religious art. Chairs and liturgical furniture can, within that space, be placed in circular form, an oval shape, traditional rows, a choir configuration or other special design. With this flexibility relative to religious symbols, the chapel can accommodate a liturgical circle, a traditional sanctuary/chancel configuration, a centered communion table surrounded by worshippers, or intimate smaller settings for prayer and meditation.
Specific items were debated. Were a pulpit and lectern both needed? Was the table to be called a communion table or altar or a table/altar to respond to the more Reformed and Anabaptist legacies or more sacramental Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions? A labyrinth was desired, but the chapel dimensions did not invite it to be located inside. Where outside, then, should it be placed? The baptismal font became important. The chapel is not a church and has no congregation. On what basis, therefore, would a baptismal font be used since persons would not be baptized into a Christian congregation? The resolution of this question was to have a font and see it symbolically, to recognize it as one’s baptism into ministry and to use it for possible other baptisms, such as infant baptisms, that could take place on special occasions.
Neither the committee nor the community questioned the assumption that the design would provide a spiritually enlivening environment. It would provide what we came to call “sacred space, common ground” reflecting our wish that the chapel would create a place for an ecumenical community to experience the presence of God.
The political experience in building the chapel was complex. The institution needed to make available personnel and resources to see that the work was done. In that process there were the interests of different groups and sectors of the school. Some thought the building of the chapel was one of the most important achievements of the school; others thought that it was an unnecessary expenditure of time and resources and particularly so against the backdrop of a stock market loss that had forced cuts and restraints in budgeting. Some persons were disappointed with the failure to include certain structural additions, the most important being a basement underneath the chapel.
Three years is a long time to sustain interest and enthusiasm, but with the breaking of ground in the spring of 2003, excitement began to grow within the community. The appearance of a bulldozer and sign announced, for all to see, what was to come. The politics of assigning resources, of mediating difference, of allaying disappointments, of capitalizing on interests, cultivating donors, soliciting funds, and making decisions with architects and builders was the order of the day. The political life of building the chapel was rich and, finally, lived up to its definition as “the art of compromise,” “the art of defining the possible,” “the art of resolving conflict,” “the art of making things happen.”
Organization and fundraising, design and construction, theology and spirituality, politics and decision making, all played their roles. So it was that a seminary built a chapel. It was not easy. Tom Schwab, the construction superintendent who helped it all happen said, “It was as hard to build as climbing Mt. Everest.” And so it was. But it happened.
The question can be asked: what was gained by such a new structure for the ongoing life of the school? After all, the seminary has worshiped in a large room that served as a chapel for forty-two years. The vision for the new chapel, however, held forth a new way for the school to be present in the world, a new place for it to prepare people for the church’s leadership, a new space for worship where people will know that they stand on holy ground. As one statement early in the process promised: “the chapel will become a work of power and prominence—a religious building offering both the seminary community and the wider community an exciting statement of God’s presence and mystery in the world.”
And so it was that the seminary did, indeed, create a new chapel.
Wilson Yates served as president of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities at the time the chapel was constructed.
Photos of the Bigelow Chapel by Paul Warchol: © Paul Warchol Photography, New York, New York.