Quick Quiz: Name the most beautiful building on any college campus that student tour guides do their best to ignore.
Answer: The College Chapel. (I know, the picture at the top gave it away.)
Based on my experience now with 17 campus tours in the past year, colleges are doing everything possible to ignore their chapels when selling their schools to prospective students and their parents.
We’ve seen it time and time again on our most recent northeast tour as we visit some of the most beautiful and well-maintained campuses this country has to offer. These schools just ooze heritage. We’ve toured an amazing adaptation of an old swimming pool into a state-of-the-art concert hall. We’ve seen an old field house turned into a lively student union. Two historic structures on one campus are under complete renovation as they become 21st century academic buildings. In every instance – no matter the school – we’re given the full fire hose of information about the reuse of these older buildings.
But when we pass arguably the loveliest historic buildings on campus – the chapels – our gregarious and perky tour guides turn into stone trolls unable to speak. The presentation usually begins, “We use to be affiliated with the Episcopal/Presbyterian/Congregationalist/Quaker/choose your own denomination, but we aren’t anymore.” They quickly add that the chapels are now used for multi-faith services (something to celebrate, if you ask me) and other very important and useful community-outreach activities. And yet their body language says, “You’ll have to shoot me before I’ll take you inside to see these beautiful spaces.”
I know, I know. Students don’t give a damn about the chapels, and most of their parents don’t either. When you are working to capture the essence of an institution in an hour (the ideal time frame for a college tour from a parents’ point of view, by the way), you have to talk about the selling points of your school…and historic chapels are far down the list for a significant majority of the visiting population.
But then there’s this historic preservationist in the group who just wants to see these buildings. So after figuring out the pattern, I’ve started wandering off with my camera. I know there will be something worth seeing.
Today was like so many others on this trip, but the difference is I ended up getting inside and reveling in special spaces that contribute so much to what makes two very fine colleges unique. I want to highlight one of them.
The chapel at Bates College was a two-fer: a beautiful building AND three organs, including a small historic one and a modern mechanical-action organ. When we arrived, the chapel was empty and was semi-dark, so it was the perfect place to spend about 15-20 minutes and gather one’s thoughts for the day.
“Though it was built in 1913, the Bates College Chapel remains to this day one of the most architecturally interesting buildings on campus. Financed by Mrs. D. Willis James and dedicated on the eve of World War I, the Chapel’s design came from the Boston firm of Coolidge and Carlson, but the inspiration for its Gothic construction came from the King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University, which was built in the fifteenth century by Henry Vl. The structure is English Collegiate Gothic in style, and the seam-faced Quincy granite used in its construction gives the building its distinctive light coloring. Two aspects of the exterior are particularly interesting: the porch entrance based on the Galilee Porch of a cathedral in Durham, England, and the Tudor arches, which add to the basic Gothic style of the rest of the building.“
The interior pews and floors are of wood, and the ceiling is crossed by heavy beams which give the chapel much of its distinctive flavor.
I got really excited, however, when I saw two of the organs in the Bates chapel. As regular readers of More to Come… know, I am a big fan of mechanical action (or tracker) organs. As soon as I turned around to face the rear of the room, I exclaimed to Candice, “They have a modern tracker organ here!”
“The organ located in the rear gallery is the third instrument to occupy the Chapel. It was installed in 1982, replacing the Esty organ, which underwent a major restoration in 1953. The present organ was built by Hellmuth Wolff of Laval, Canada, and its Renaissance-style case of stained white oak was inspired by the organ in St. Geroen, Cologne. The pipeshades, of hand-carved butternut wood, reflect some of the wood carvings found elsewhere in the Chapel.
The organ is a thirty-six-stop, mechanical-action instrument of eclectic design. The pipes in the facade are speaking pipes, made of an alloy of tin and lead.“
It is a lovely instrument, that no doubt gives great pleasure to the Bates College community.
The chapel also has a sweet little historical organ at the front of the room (seen in the left of the photo below), which according to the college website was built by Henry Erben in 1850. Erben was the finest of the mid-nineteenth century American organ builders.
We all loved Bates and the beautiful campus.
Not that anyone asked, but my advice to admissions officers and college tour guides is to simply ask if anyone would like to see your historic chapel. You may not have any takers, but when you do, you’ll know you can showcase one of the loveliest – and most interesting – places on campus that speaks eloquently as to who you are.
More to come…
Image: The chapel at Bates College