Add up the music conservatories and the seminaries, the enormous land-grant universities and the tiny Bible colleges, the Harvards and the would-be Harvards, the art institutes and the yeshivas, and there are over 4000 recognizable institutions of higher learning in the United States.
It shouldn’t be surprising that, along the way, some beautiful college chapels got built. Some ugly ones, as well. And neither the good or the bad are always where you might expect. I mean, you probably could have guessed that the Newman Center at UC Berkeley would prove a dated disaster of its once-trendy kind, or that Sewanee, routinely nominated as the most beautiful campus in America, would have put gorgeous work into its All Saints’ Chapel.
But why should St. Thomas in Houston be the school to suffer the nuttiness of Philip Johnson’s Chapel of St. Basil, with its skewed cross, free-floating dome, and false wall of bells? Or the University of Chicago be the lucky school with both the striking Rockefeller Chapel and the stone cloister of the Bond Chapel?
Eccentricity, even when brilliant, is not what you want for the purpose. The large Alice Millar Chapel is reasonably set at Northwestern University, but the otherwise not unattractive Dimnent Memorial sits like an uncomfortable behemoth glowering at small Hope College in Michigan. The Perkins Chapel at Southern Methodist is a pretty-enough Georgian thing but perhaps better suited to somewhere other than Dallas, and the wonderful, wedding-cake mess of the chapel at the Naval Academy might breathe easier in a less martial atmosphere.
For that matter, the much-praised modernist Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy looks, on its otherwise architecturally undistinguished campus, as though the Sydney Opera House had been dropped into the middle of Leavenworth Prison. At least the strange little Swedenborg Chapel at Harvard has the sense to be hidden away.
Duke University Chapel would make anyone’s list of fine places, were it not for the oddity of the entry’s statuary: Luther, Calvin, and Savonarola on one side; Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, and the poet Sydney Lanier on the other; and John Wesley looking down on them all. The exaggerated Mission style of Immaculata at the University of San Diego would be hard to set aside, as well, except that it’s not actually associated with the school—a problem shared by the iconic St. Ignatius at the University of San Francisco.
Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse is a fine example of the combination that influenced a number of colleges in its era: Jefferson’s Monticello meets the Pantheon, by way, probably, of Latrobe’s 1806 cathedral for Baltimore. The small, brick Victorian chapel at Washington and Lee is perfectly designed for what it is. Heinz Chapel at Pittsburgh, St. Paul’s at Columbia, Trinity in Hartford, Knowles Memorial at Rollins College. For that matter, both the Dwight and Marquand chapels at Yale, the Duncan Stroik–designed masterpiece at Thomas Aquinas, and the Cadet Chapel at West Point: There are some nice places scattered across America’s campuses.
Architecturally nice, at least. And some not so nice. Virginia Tech built itself a cross between a tomb and an armory to make its War Memorial Chapel. You could worship there, if you had to, but it would be cold. Very cold. Stauffer Chapel at Pepperdine looks like the entrance to a tunnel with no light at the end. And Ave Maria—well, yes, Ave Maria in Florida seems to have constructed its spanking-new oratory out of titanium fossils: dinosaur bones from the space age. At that, at least it’s better than the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, designed (to use a word loosely) for Florida Southern by Frank Lloyd Wright: a place only slight less spiritual than a Cineplex wandering lost through L’Enfant Plaza.
But the worst college chapels in America? In third place, the Kresge Chapel, designed for MIT by Eero Saarinen and resembling nothing so much as a Martello tower, one of those little pepper-pot forts the English scattered around the coast to discourage Napoleon. The occulated waterfall effect on the inside looks exactly like the set of Star Trek—at the moment when the transporter beam starts to go wrong.
In second place among the worst, Seattle University’s St. Ignatius. The eye slits winking on the front doors, the dead tree in the side chapel, and the goofy windows in the narthex: This isn’t just a church. It’s the house a Hollywood producer built to try to prove how hip he was.
And in first place, the worst in America, comes the unforgettable chapel at the Virginia Military Institute. I know there’s a long tradition of fortress churches, but this is the Alamo with bits of collegiate Gothic pasted on the side. And the whole thing painted khaki. The interior, however, is where it really goes wrong: a German military beer hall, all wooden balconies and banners, with a painting, behind the altar, displaying not Christ’s sacrifice but the Confederate cadets’ charge at the 1864 Battle of New Market.
And the best college chapels? Ralph Adams Cram’s 1920s chapel, in all its Protestant Gothic glory, for Princeton. The half-plain and half-ornate Mission baroque of the chapel at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California, just outside Oakland. But the best college chapel in America remains, just as it has been from the beginning, the tiny Wren Chapel of William & Mary: Scene of a controversy in recent years over the continuing Christian presence of its cross, the chapel is still clean and precise and Protestant, a powerful small testament to a faith that its school seems no longer to understand.