Happy undoing of a modernist makeover

At the College of Notre Dame, the chapel is being stripped of its '60s modernization and restored to its late 19th-century glory.

March 04, 2001|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

For decades, students at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland worshiped in a beautiful Romanesque chapel that featured high vaulted ceilings, round arches and finely crafted ornamentation, including stained glass windows made in Germany.

In the late 1960s, much of the architectural detail was covered up in a well-intentioned but unsympathetic modernization designed to add air conditioning and seats and provide a more contemporary space for students to celebrate Mass.

The original sanctuary, one of the few religious spaces designed by the noted firm of Baldwin and Pennington, might have stayed hidden forever. Instead, the 1896 chapel inside Theresa Hall has been uncovered and will be restored by year's end as part of a $1.5 million to $2 million effort by the college to re-establish it as a focal point of community and spiritual life on campus.

In recent months, contractors peeled away all the 1960s alterations, including a flat ceiling and metal ducts that obscured the vaulted spaces above, wood paneling that covered plaster walls, and carpeting that smothered the handsome pine floor.

"We were delighted" to find that so much of the original architecture remained, said Michael Murphy of Murphy & Dittenhafer, the restoration architects. "It was like making an archaeological discovery, to see that this upper part was basically still there and in good condition."

The restoration work is being funded with a $1.5 million gift from a Notre Dame graduate, Helen Marikle Passano, and her family, husband E. Magruder "Mac" Passano Jr. and daughters Catherine, Tammy and Sarah. It's the largest single gift from an alumna in the college's history. When work is complete, the space will be renamed the Marikle Chapel at Theresa Hall in honor of Helen's parents, Wanda and Henry Marikle.

The work signals a shift in thinking about architecture on the Notre Dame campus, where several buildings have been restored or expanded since 1996 in accordance with a master plan prepared by Robert A. M. Stern Architects of New York. Campus planners are restoring the best of the historic buildings, such as Theresa and Meletia halls, and addressing gaffes made during the modernist building boom of the 1960s and 1970s, when less wasn't necessarily more.

Helen Passano exemplifies the change in attitude. An undergraduate from 1965 to 1969 and a trustee since 1995, she attended Mass in both the original space and the revamped version, which was completed in 1968.

"I remember loving the new chapel," she said. "We were cool. We got air conditioning. We thought we were moving forward with a contemporary space. But guess what? We're moving back. It's time to bring it back to its original glory."

Others never liked the remuddled chapel, saying it reminded them of a gymnasium. They contend that it was especially inappropriate for Notre Dame, where worship is a key part of student life, to have a stripped-down chapel - especially when Loyola College has such a beautiful one practically next door.

Ever since she was named to head the women's college four years ago, said president Mary Pat Seurkamp, one of the most frequently askedquestions from alumnae has been, "When are you going to do something about the chapel?" As a result of those widespread concerns, Seurkamp said, administrators moved the chapel restoration up the priority list.

"As soon as I became aware of what the chapel once looked like, it became apparent to me that this was a very important project that we had to do," Seurkamp said.

Founded in 1896 by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a Catholic order, the college was the first Catholic women's college in the United States to offer a baccalaureate degree. It still admits women only for its four-year undergraduate program, but offers classes to men and women through its weekend college and graduate studies programs. More than 3,000 students attend classes on the 56-acre campus at 4701 N. Charles St.

The chapel is the most elaborate space inside Theresa Hall, a five-story building named for Mother Theresa Gerhardinger, founder of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. It's the second oldest structure on campus, after Gibbons Hall, which predates the founding of the college.

The chapel is somewhat unusual because it's on the second floor of a larger building, rather than a free-standing structure, and surrounded on three sides by other spaces, including residences above. Its focal point is a semicircular apse that originally framed an elaborate marble altar. Within the apse was a mural of the Virgin Mary painted by Sister Engelberta Huerer, an original member of the art faculty.

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