Wednesday, December 11, 2002

A piece about the restored chapel at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore

Notre Dame's chapel occupies the second floor of Theresa Hall, a five-story building designed by noted Baltimore architects E. Francis Baldwin and Josias Pennington. It originally featured a high vaulted ceiling, round arches, carved wood wainscoting and pews, and finely crafted ornamentation, including eight stained-glass windows made in Munich, Germany.

The space was brutally altered in the late 1960s, when much of the original detail was covered up or removed during an unsympathetic renovation designed to add air conditioning and seats and provide a more contemporary space for students to celebrate Mass. The renovation was launched shortly after the Second Vatican Council recommended that every Catholic church become more of a communal space, with priests facing worshippers instead of turning away from them. It also reflected Modernist attitudes about design, wiping away historical finishes rather than saving them.

As part of the 1968 alterations, contractors installed a flat ceiling to conceal air conditioning ducts inserted in the vaulted space above; cut down the stained-glass windows to fit within the lower ceiling, hid the pine floor with mustard-colored carpeting, replaced the marble altar with a wood one, and removed the old communion rails, choir loft and organ. The once bright and soaring space became dark and austere - more like a club basement than a worship space.

The goal of the 2002 renovation was to recapture the historic space while accommodating contemporary needs. The college hired Murphy & Dittenhafer of Baltimore to guide the work, with Michael Murphy as principal in charge and James Suttner as project architect. They recommended restoring many original features, including the stained-glass windows, and replicating others based on historical photographs and drawings. They took the chapel back to its original proportions by removing the drop ceiling and closing in one side that had been opened up. They even had radiators put back beneath the stained-glass windows - a low-tech solution that helped preserve the historic character of the space.

But the architects did not simply turn back the clock. The college's goal of accommodating contemporary services and events called for a combination of restoration and renovation. Besides the straightforward restoration work, the architects' big moves included designing a new altar, pulpit and sanctuary platform that project farther into the nave. New pews were fabricated for the space, with several rows of chairs in the front to provide flexibility for different services, concerts and weddings. Ductwork was threaded through the vaulted ceiling to diffusers that appear at first glance to be part of the ceiling.

One of the architects' best contributions was developing a 22-color paint treatment that enhances the space and brings out the details. Side walls are yellow, and the semicircular apse is green. Certain accent colors were inspired by the stained-glass windows; others are earth tones that invite quiet meditation. The architects instructed the painters to lighten the shades progressively as they moved toward the ceiling, to accentuate the room's verticality. Suttner has a knack for selecting just the right colors; his choices make the chapel at once contemplative, joyful and uplifting.

If you compare old and new Catholic churches, you'll find that to be one of the greatest differences: color. Even little country churches around here, built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, no matter how simple, all feature color - borders, murals, tromp d'oeil...modern churches are so....bland, yes?

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