Unexpected Modern: Valparaiso University’s Chapel of the Resurrection

By Amy Borland, Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology (DHPA)

I have a confession to make: When I first started my career in historic preservation 15 years ago, I wasn’t a fan of Modern architecture. It simply didn’t interest me. You may be asking how that is possible when the modern Mecca of Columbus, Indiana, is less than an hour away. Modern buildings just seemed cold and stark. There simply wasn’t that hook to draw me in. Then in 2009 a coworker and I happened upon the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University located in northwest Indiana and designed by architect Charles E. Stade.1My thoughts on Modernism changed.

Chapel of the Resurrection, Charles Stade, 1956. Looking northeast. Photographer: Gretchen Buggeln; On file at IN-DHPA.

It sounds odd to say we “happened” upon it considering it has been called one of the largest collegiate chapels in the United States, but we did. Being building nerds and conducting site visits throughout Indiana, my coworkers at the Indiana State Historic Preservation Office and I often take little detours when we see interesting buildings across the landscape. In central and northern Indiana, that view can extend pretty far since the land is mostly flat and agricultural. As we were approaching Valparaiso, we noticed this large crown-like structure in the distance and decided to check it out. It was incredible.

Set into the rise of a small hill, the Chapel of the Resurrection was designed by Charles E. Stade, an architect in Park Ridge, Illinois, and it is considered his most important work. Stade was a nationally-known church architect and focused most of his career in that genre. However, he also created houses, educational buildings, and nursing/retirement homes. In fact, he designed 13 other buildings on the Valparaiso University campus. Almost all of his buildings utilized the Modern style. Peter Dohmen, a German immigrant from Saint Paul, Minnesota, created the glass windows for the Chapel with assistance from liturgical consultant Reverend A. R. Kretzmann and Dieterich Spahn. Construction of the reinforced concrete and orange hued-brick and limestone cladded building began in 1956 and the first service was in 1958. The Chapel dominates the landscape with its 105-foot high octagonal chancel topped by a nine-gabled star-like roof. It serves the Valparaiso University community as a religious space and as a convocation space that could originally hold 3000 people. Depending on the configuration of the seating, the Chapel now seats approximately 2000.2

Chapel of the Resurrection, Charles Stade, 1956. Looking east. Photographer: Gretchen Buggeln; On file at IN-DHPA.

Cornerstone Mosaic. Photographer: Holly Tate; On file at IN-DHPA.

The complex consists of three parts: a low-roofed entry on the west end of the building, the immense nave with zig-zagging walls of brick and glass, and the soaring chancel dominated by a series of towering clear and stained glass windows. Once inside the building, a three-story circular baptistery connects the main level to the lower level offices, meeting rooms, and restrooms and the upper level choir loft and seating. A small chapel is located beneath the chancel and is accessed from steps on either side of the nave. A free-standing brick and aluminum cruciform-shaped campanile with 12 bells rises 143 feet and seems to twist up into the air. In 2015 a single story 11,000 square foot addition by Chicago architects Nagle Hartray was added to the south of the Chapel for offices, meeting rooms, and music rooms. Its location and materials were selected to blend in with both the landscape and the building so as to not detract from the original design of the Chapel.

A single-story metal canopy supported by tapered steel pillars angles from the northwest corner of the Chapel over the main entry and two exterior mosaics along the west façade. It terminates at the circular baptistery at the southwest corner of the building. Flanking the glass and aluminum entry are two colorful mosaics by Peter Dohmen Studio. The theme of the western mosaic, “Christian Scholar,” is learning while that of the eastern one, “Cornerstone Mosaic,” is community. 

Nave, altar, & windows. Photographer: Holly Tate; On file at IN-DHPA.

(Image Left) Altar, windows, & ceiling. Photographer: Holly Tate; On file at IN-DHPA. (Image Right) Nave, choir loft, & organ. Photographer: Holly Tate; On file at IN-DHPA.

The roughly V-shaped narthex, with orange brick floors and columns, is a bright space. It is visually divided from the nave of the church by a series of columns and low planter boxes, but it is not enclosed to fully separate the spaces. Additionally, the narthex is open to the circular stair that leads up to the choir/organ loft and down to the baptistery. Pink terrazzo treads and vertical brass rods carry the stair along the outer wall of the three-story tower. This tower is illuminated by natural light coming from an overhead skylight and a series of irregular spaced and small horizontal rectangular blown-glass windows that spiral around the outer wall of the tower in line with the rise of the stairs. An abstract bronze sculpture by Conrad Schmitt Studio of Milwaukee, fills the central opening of the spiral staircase. This 17-foot long work floats in the air and radiates between the skylight above and the black granite baptismal font and black Mexican pebbles below. The remainder of the west end of the lower level consists of restrooms, meeting rooms, and mechanical rooms before accessing the Gloria Christi Chapel at the east end. 

The zig-zagging exterior walls of the nave are broken into 12 towering vertical sections of alternating orange brick and clear, geometrically patterned glass. Open brickwork on the main level of the nave walls is backed by fabric to allow for improved acoustics in the soaring space. From the western entry into the nave, only the brick walls are visible. However, from the chancel both brick and glass are seen.

A center aisle of gray stone extends the entire length of the nave and is flanked by dark walnut pews and chairs sitting on a polished concrete floor. Suspended from the white plaster ceiling are two parallel rows of 18-foot long light fixtures that feature three tiers of frosted glass and perforated brass cylinders extending from bronze arms.

At the rear of the nave is the cantilevered choir/organ loft. It is punctuated by a tall, narrow stained glass window that resembles the chancel windows at the other end of the Chapel. The loft itself is 30-feet deep to accommodate the large Herman Schlicker organ, with 5500 pipes on five different levels, and a choir with musicians. Additional seating runs along the sides of both walls at a mezzanine level that adjoins the choir and organ loft at the rear of the Chapel.

Stairway & sculpture. Photographer: Gretchen Buggeln; On file at IN-DHPA.

(Image Left) Pulpit. Photographer: Holly Tate; On file at IN-DHPA. (Image Right) Stairway & baptistery. Photographer: Gretchen Buggeln; On file at IN-DHPA.

The chancel roof is supported by eight limestone veneer piers that meet the roof at the low points of the gables. Spaced between the piers are enormous geometrically patterned glass windows. The center three windows, located on the east end, were replaced with stained glass between 1961-65 and each measure 85 feet tall and 22 feet wide. The designers originally intended for all of windows to be replaced in this manner. The angles and pattern of the windows visually draws the eye upward. On the interior, this dramatic backdrop is located behind the 24-foot black Italian marble altar designed by Peter Dohmen Studios of Saint Paul, Minnesota. A 24-foot wooden cross with an 11-foot bronze statue of Christ designed by Slade adorns the altar. Attached to one of the limestone piers of the south wall of the chancel is an elevated octagonal black walnut and brass pulpit that cantilevers over the steps to the chancel and is topped by an abstract brass sounding board.

The Gloria Christi Chapel beneath the chancel is a light-filled and intimate space. The east end of the chapel is open at grade and the three easternmost chancel windows extend to ground level bathing the space with natural light. It has limestone, brick, and wood walls, limestone floor, and a white plaster star-shaped suspended ceiling that mimics the nine-pointed star chancel roof above. An altar is located in a western alcove created between the stairs that lead up to the chancel. This wood-lined niche has a colored glass panel, artificially lit from behind, symbolizing the Son of God and a second welded Christ statue and wrought iron cross. A second altar is located opposite the first and this one extends beyond the glass wall to provide for outdoor services. Two stained glass screens, also created by Conrad Schmitt Studios, are set at an angle in front of this eastern altar and are attached to the floor and ceiling. The Chapel seats 175 people in oak pews and has a second organ from Schlicker Organ Company, albeit a small freestanding one unlike the one upstairs.

West façade of chapel. Photographer: Holly Tate; On file at IN-DHPA.

East façade of chapel. Photographer: Gretchen Buggeln; On file at IN-DHPA.

Visiting the Chapel of the Resurrection was a game-changer for me. I hadn’t previously spent much time inside Modern buildings. I had just assessed the exteriors of various newer buildings, which even today, I still sometimes find a bit off-putting. However, getting to experience this space in person allowed me to see how this soaring space could actually be a warm and inviting sacred space.
Information taken from the National Register of Historic Places application for Chapel of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University by Gretchen T. Buggeln. Application is on file at the Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, Indianapolis, IN, 2011.

Chapel of the Resurrection, Charles Stade, 1956. Looking southwest. Photographer: Gretchen Buggeln; On file at IN-DHPA.

About the Author

Amy Borland is an architectural historian with the Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology (DHPA). In her 15 years at the DHPA she has reviewed National Register of Historic Places applications, managed the statewide historic sites and structures program, and spear-headed DesignIndy, a month-long celebration of design in Indianapolis. She lives in Indianapolis and spends her free time working on her old house and planning the next family adventure with her husband and son.


Notes

1. Gretchen Buggeln has written extensively about Stade, this chapel, and Stade's parish work in The Suburban Church: Modernism and Community in Postwar America (University of Minnesota Press: 2015).

2. Valparaiso University Chapel website http://www.valpo.edu/chapel/chapel-history/ Accessed January 18, 2017.

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