“History will begin anew with the McGaw Chapel.” – John D. McKee class of 1917
McGaw Chapel was a radical departure from the previous architectural forms of The College of Wooster. With few right angles and partly underground, McGaw Chapel sought to relate to students and the period in which it was built through the ‘experiential nature of architecture’. With entrances from all directions, the building invokes feelings of community, spirituality, access, and openness. The Chapel is a building of its time, an, “attribution to the fervor and idealism of the 1960’s,” Wrote Arn Lewis, a College of Wooster professor of architecture and chapel building committee member. McGaw Chapel mimics Kauke Hall abstractly, as a source of strength, Lewis noted. It is a rejection of the normal form of a chapel and its usual religious iconography, a sign of the openness of students and faculty alike to, “Forgo luxury and artistic tradition of out of concern for others.”1
When completed, the campus celebrated McGaw Chapel. President Drushal, succeeding the late President Lowry, spoke at the dedication of the building, praising McGaw’s, “simplicity of design and economy of structure.” Seating close to 1,600 people and built for the sum of less than $2 million dollars, the building was already paid for by the dedication. Most importantly, Drushal remarked, the building, “makes a statement of invitation to seekers of the light.”2
Controversy, though, has surrounded McGaw Chapel since its dedication. It has been accused of subverting religion by being placed partially underground. Further complicating the issue is the common misconception from students and faculty alike that McGaw Chapel was a huge mistake, and was supposed to be built entirely underground, if not for the workers hitting bedrock during the excavation.
This strong oral tradition presents a problem for historians, as it is uncorroborated in the historical record. In all the materials associated with McGaw Chapel collected by the College of Wooster Special Collections, none mention that the building was to be built entirely underground. Simply put, there is no evidence other than this persistent campus legend that suggests the building was intended to be built completely underground.
So what are the facts about McGaw and the supposed bedrock dilemma? Arn Lewis, chapel committee member, confirmed the fact that during construction the workers had indeed hit bedrock. He estimated that McGaw sits anywhere from 8 to 15 feet higher than what was intended, the difference because of the supposed bedrock predicament. The 8 to 15 feet in difference would not have drastically changed the skyline and view of the area, though.3 The campus community knew the building it was getting the moment Christ-Janer revealed his plans – that of a modernist architect’s approach to a religious building.
As part of the McGaw bedrock myth, campus opinion over the building has changed over time. While students and faculty today often complain about the chapel, it was a more positive story when the chapel was built. Rowell Levy as part of his Independent Study at the College did a survey of reactions to McGaw during the 1997-1998 academic year. His responses included an alumna from sixties who recalled the Chapel displayed the, “excitement of the times.” An elder faculty member who was present during the construction called it, “a wonderful impulse toward modernity,” that was, “a bold statement about the college moving forward…a modern interpretation of the college seal which has the bible in center, flanked by globe and telescope.”4 When it was built, students and staff alike rejoiced in the idea and construction of McGaw Chapel.
It seems that decades later, students and faculty alike have forgotten Christ-Janer’s vision and philosophy of architecture. Although there are some major design flaws in the functionality of the building, notably a problem with roof leaks since its construction, the design and experiential nature of the building is a success, at least insofar as it continues to evoke strong emotional feelings from the campus today.
photograph courtesy of COWSC
- Arn Lewis, “Letter to President R. Stanton Hales,” 7 August 2002, obtained from the author. ↩
- J. Garber Drushal, “Remarks For Dedication of McGaw Chapel,” October 24, 1971, McGaw Chapel Addresses, B&G, COWSC ↩
- Arn Lewis, interview by author, Wooster, OH, November 9, 2010. ↩
- Levy, “McGaw Chapel,” 69-71. ↩