Rockefeller Memorial Chapel

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Architecture, Organ and Carillon

Detail of Rockefeller Chapel

Parables of Jesus, carved on the reredos

Detail of Rockefeller Chapel

Shields of the Universities of Indiana, Geneva, and Michigan

Detail of Rockefeller Chapel

The apostle James, in plaster and stone

"The most beautiful ecclesiastical structure... ."

A Chapel service performed in the large, unadorned lecture hall occupying the north end of the first floor of Cobb Hall on October 1, 1892 marked the first official public exercise of the University of Chicago. Perhaps in response to the less than ceremonial environs, University President William Rainey Harper took advantage of the occasion to urge that “the University should have upon its grounds a structure which should be used only for ecclesiastical and the highest academical functions. A University chapel in which a spiritual and intellectual quest for truth could be wed institutionally was essential to Harper’s University ideal.

Campus architect Henry Ives Cobb agreed and, seeing the university as a “city of learning,” included a chapel on the east end of the main quadrangle in his original 1892 sketch of the campus.

These plans aside, the University would wait nearly 35 years to realize a Chapel that would fulfill Harper’s desire for the “most beautiful ecclesiastical structure in the Mississippi valley.”

Rockefeller’s final gift

Efforts to erect a Chapel were realized when John D. Rockefeller presented the University with his “Final Gift” on December 13, 1910. In his letter of designation addressed to the second University President, Harry Pratt Judson, and the Trustees of the University, Rockefeller outlined his specific wishes for the $10m donation. In the past, Rockefeller had given endowment funds rather than building funds, but on this occasion he requested that $1.5m of the final gift be devoted to the creation and furnishing of a University Chapel. Echoing both Cobb and Harper, Rockefeller envisioned the Chapel as the “central and dominant feature of the University group.”

In 1918, New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (1869-1924) was asked to prepared designs for a University Chapel. Rockefeller’s desire that the spirit of religion be central to the University is materialized in the Chapel’s grandeur of design. Goodhue created a colossal effect through his arrangement of the main arcade arches, combining two bays in each unit of vaulting. The 72-bell carillon, the second-heaviest musical instrument in the world, reminds members of the University daily of the presence of the building. The stone sculptures that decorate the exterior include among Christian apostles and martyrs such figures as Plato and Zoroaster, conveying the Chapel’s commitment to the spirit of religious inquiry.

Design and construction

In 1924, University President Ernest DeWitt Burton toured 22 outstanding British cathedrals to review the precedents for the Gothic plans presented to him by Goodhue. Included, among others, were the chapels of New College, Oxford, and Kings College, Cambridge, as well as the ruined abbey at Glastonbury and the cathedrals at Canterbury, Salisbury, Winchester, Wells, and Ely. Burton returned to Chicago and accepted Goodhue’s plan. By connecting the most recognizable building on the University of Chicago campus to the 700-year-old educational traditions set by medieval cathedral schools and universities, Burton strove to inspire immediate awe and instant credibility to the young institution with such grand ambitions.

Goodhue died on April 23, 1924, two years before construction of the Chapel began, and it is considered his last monument and enduring testament.

Other notable artists involved in the design of parts of the Chapel included Hildreth Meiere (1892-1961), designer of the ceiling medallions and panels; Alois Lang (1872-1954), designer of the wood carvings; Lee Lawrie (1877-1963) and Ulric Ellerhausen (1879-1957), designers of the stone carvings; and Harold Hayden, designer of the later windows.

The world-famous organ, designed by E.M. Skinner (1866-1960), was built into the Chapel during its construction and dedicated with the Chapel in 1928.

At the Chapel’s dedication, Rockefeller’s son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated $1m to the Chapel’s endowment in memory of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. Rockefeller Chapel’s carillon is named in her honor.

The carillon was added to the tower in 1932 and has been played daily since that date, with the exception of the time during its restoration in 2006-08. Other additions to the structure include the 1973 addition of the side aisle lancet windows, and the 1978 addition of the cinquefoil (five-pointed) window which casts red, gold, and blue light throughout the building.