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Churches worth seeing, XIV

February 22, 2014

chapel-of-the-cross
The Chapel of the Cross : Chapel Hill, N.C.
(Diocese of North Carolina)

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina, takes its name from an Anglican chapel of ease that occupied a position atop this gentle hill from 1752 and which disappeared during the Revolution. Shortly thereafter, a town coalesced here around the nascent University of North Carolina, which began enrolling students in 1795.

Although traveling clergymen minstered to local Episcopalians, Chapel Hill had no successor to the chapel of ease until 1842, when the Revd William Mercer Green, priest and Carolina professor, left the rectorship of St. Matthew’s, Hillsborough, to become University chaplain and establish a congregation. For five years, his small parish worshiped in members’ houses as their little church slowly rose, built from handmade bricks fired in kilns on the Revd Mr. Green’s property. On October 19, 1848, Bishop Ives consecrated the new church – complete with a wooden gallery for slaves – as the “Chapel of the Holy Cross.” He accurately described the scale of the building by calling it a chapel, but declared, “We’ll name it for the deed and not the doctrine.” The parish had 22 communicants, five of whom were University students.

By 1921, the parish had outgrown its first church. The vestry, under the leadership of the Revd Alfred Lawrence (rector 1921–1944), commissioned the distinguished church architect Hobart Upjohn (grandson of Richard Upjohn) to design a new building to be connected to “the old chapel” by a cloister and parish house. The new church was consecrated in 1925 and has served the parish, largely unaltered, ever since.

The old chapel.

The old chapel.

WHILE architecturally similar in the most general way, the old chapel and the current church occupy two utterly different – though complimentary – emotional and aesthetic spheres. Cheerful on the outside, the old chapel’s interior is intimate, chaste but not prim, and reverent. The feeling inside is one of quiet humility and a kind of simple but rigorous piety, which the chapel’s builders no doubt possessed. The former slave gallery looms large above the entry, and the front portion of the nave feels comparatively open before the uncluttered chancel. The broad side of the building faces south-west, and so honeyed light floods through the lattice windows during the afternoon, warming the the plaster and woodwork.

Dobson opus 82.

Dobson opus 82.

The old chapel’s particular jewel is its Dobson organ, which was built for the parish in 2006. The case was inspired by extant examples of American organ building from the 1840s, and it incorporates decorative details from the original fabric of the chapel itself, such as Ogee arches and a quatrefoil motif from the gallery railing.

Tonally, the instrument has the rich and full sound characteristic of organs built in the late 19th century, but its specification is equally suited to the broad range of organ literature written from the 16th century through to the present. The organ is meticulously crafted, beautifully voiced and finished, and it seems completely at home in its setting. It is an absolute joy to play, as much on a single stop as with full organ, and it has added much to the fabric of an old room.

IN CONTRAST to the old chapel, the 1925 church is majestic, stately, and serene in the most Anglican, dignified way imaginable. Both the west and east ends terminate in a single, massive wall dominated by stained glass, and one enters the building – correctly – through the south porch at the base of the tower. Inside, Upjohn’s sparse design and unfussy detailing, paired with the plaster walls and absence of stained glass in the nave, lend an effect of light, spaciousness, and air.

The new church, facing east.

The new church, facing east.

Slate floors both magnify this splendid reserve and contribute to a fine and lively acoustic. Elaborate decoration is used sparingly and confined chiefly to stained glass and woodwork, and both are employed in beautifying the most liturgically significant corners of the church: the chancel and the bapistry.

The bapistry and font.

The bapistry and font.

The bright walls and dark beams of the roof have the added effect of drawing the eye forward, rather than upward (as at Amiens, for example), focusing the congregation’s attention where it should: toward the pulpit and finally the altar. This attention is not distracted by the lighting fixtures, which nevertheless benefit from a closer review: although in keeping with Upjohn’s overall solemnity, their frosted glass and steel are finely wrought and their designs animated.

Like so much else in this building – the woodwork, the glass, and the hangings – the quality of the individual ornaments does not distract from, but rather contributes to, the overall composition of the interior, which is exactly as it should be. The new Chapel of the Cross possesses every fine characteristic of the Gothic Revival in the United States, and it stands out easily among its peers. How fine a temple in which to worship.

WE WILL SAY finally that the Chapel of the Cross is a parish which we long have known and for which we possess a great affinity. We have spent much of our university and postgraduate years in the area, have worshipped together in Chapel Hill, and have been fed within the walls of these fine buildings by the parish’s fine clergy and lay staff, whom we count as friends. While fourteenth in this series, it is by no means fourteenth in our affections, and it is a church – and an old chapel – well worth seeing.

The chancel.

The chancel.

Nave, facing west.

Nave, facing west.

The cloister.

The cloister.

Inside the cloister: parish house entry.

Inside the cloister: parish house entry.

Inside the cloister: old chapel wall.

Inside the cloister: old chapel wall.

The old chapel in spring.

The old chapel in spring.

Belfries, old and new.

Belfries, old and new.

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