Princeton University Chapel
(Princeton University, Denise Applewhite, 2013)
An Inspiring Structure Open to All
By Anne Levin
Back when Princeton University Chapel opened its Collegiate Gothic-style doors in 1928, students were required to attend religious services on Sunday mornings. Christian iconography is on view throughout the cathedral in its decorative masonry, woodwork, tapestries, and stained glass, which makes it safe to assume that these Sunday services followed the tenets of the Christian faith.
Designed by architect Ralph Adams Cram to reflect the style of medieval English cathedrals, the imposing sandstone/limestone building is still the center of spiritual life on campus. But over the decades, the Chapel has evolved to reflect the diversity of the student body.
After a $10 million restoration two decades ago, the building was rededicated in an interfaith ceremony at which Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian prayers were offered. Leading the service, then-Dean of Religious Life Thomas Breidenthal says, “This edifice is unmistakably Christian, but this chapel is meant to belong to all of us,” according to coverage in the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
The Chapel serves cultural as well as religious and academic purposes. Organ and choral music are a focus. University Organist Eric Plutz, the 65-member Chapel Choir, and soloists and ensembles from outside the campus perform throughout the year.
“The acoustics are fabulous for singing,” says Chapel Choir Director Nicole Aldrich. “There is a wonderful reverberation that carries voices out into the room and leaves them hanging there for a little while. Slow music is perfect in that space.”
Plutz, a Westminster Choir College graduate who has been at the Chapel since 2005, still marvels at the building’s architecture and the E.M. Skinner organ, described by the University’s website as “a magnificent instrument that uses the entirety of the nave as its sounding board.”
“I’ve been here for 18 years, and that newness has not worn off yet, for which I’m grateful,” Plutz says while seated at the instrument and demonstrating its magnificent sound. “This is my practice place. I’m often sitting here, and I observe the people who come in. The lines of the architecture draw your eye up. And nearly everyone is captured in a sense of awe. They become hushed. It’s something I think is inherent when people enter a religious space.”
It was soon after the University’s Marquand Chapel burned to the ground during House Party Weekend in 1920 that Cram was commissioned to come up with a replacement. Cram was the University’s supervising architect at the time; he also designed the Graduate College. Building the new chapel cost $2 million (nearly $35 million in today’s dollars) and took four years once ground was broken. The completed cathedral, capable of seating 2,000, was second in size only to the chapel at King’s College, Cambridge University in England.
“It’s the height, and specificity of the proportions between the width and the height, that make it so special,” says Plutz. “This is the design patterned after cathedrals in Europe. The way the building is situated was inspired by Cambridge and Oxford.”
According to the Chapel website, the oak pews in the nave are made from wood originally intended for Civil War gun carriages. The pulpit, brought from France, probably dates to the mid-16th century and had been painted bright red prior to its installation in the Chapel. The wood for the pews in the chancel, where the choir and clergy are seated for services, came from Sherwood Forest in England, and took 100 people over a year to carve. The statues adorning these pews represent figures in the history of music, scholars, and teachers of the church.
“It is such a magnificent space. There is a grandeur there,” says Alison Boden, the University’s dean of Religious Life and the Chapel. “It was built back in the 1920s, before the crash. They were able to build something of their dreams that really hearkened back to the cathedrals of Europe. It was such a significant moment. If it had been a little later, it would probably have been Art Deco. It is just a beautiful testimony, in terms of ecclesiastical architecture, and in retrospect we realize it was built in such a particular moment with very particular yearnings. Princeton at that time was still looking to Europe for a kind of legitimacy.”
Aldrich loves the fact that the Chapel is open to all. “Think about how many people have crossed the threshold to see what’s inside, or sit in silence, or pray,” she says. “It’s amazing to me to think about that. My predecessor used to say the voices of everyone who have ever sung there are still in the stones.”
This fall, the Chapel hosted Hindu Diwali observances and a tribute to the life of the prophet Mohammed. Boden held a national conference there for Christian students, with 150 in attendance to hear panel discussions on theology. “We have had speakers in there not doing anything particularly religious, like Jimmy Carter and the Tibetan lama,” she says. “We invite a lot of different kinds of events to take place.”
The Chapel is staffed by student workers and open until 11:30 each night. “Students tell me that when they are studying in the library, they give themselves a page-reading goal, and then take themselves to the chapel for a break before going back,” says Boden. “It’s quite a space — a space of peace.”
Many people with a Princeton affiliation are memorialized on the walls, in the stained-glass windows, in engravings on the pews, and elsewhere throughout the building. A random sampling: “Class of 1960 at its 60th Reunion, May 2020”; “President John Witherspoon, Signer of the Declaration of Independence”; “The Light in This Bay is in Memory of William Learned Aldrich, 458th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, 13th Airborne Division U.S. Army, 1924-1946”; “Richard Rush, Statesman and Diplomat, Graduated 1797”; and “In Memory of William D. Sherrerd, Jr., Class of 1925, 1901-1976.”
“It is a long-held custom, at least in Europe, to carve people’s name on walls,” says Boden. “Princetonians have really wanted to remember their dear ones there. It’s a kind of testament to how important their alma mater was to them. Relatives, classmates, and others will do it. So many different kinds of people are memorialized there, from an atheist philosophy professor to a beloved squash coach.”
A plaque commemorates the sermon delivered in the chapel by Martin Luther King Jr. on March 13, 1960, “Presented by the Undergraduate Student Government, 1990.”
As in many religious buildings, the stained-glass windows in the Chapel depict various religious stories and figures. “But here, some of the windows in the nave show familiar figures in academia,” says Plutz. “There are Pythagoras, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson — not a typical thing you’d see in a Chapel like this.”
The Chapel is busy during the holiday season. The annual Thanksgiving Worship Service is on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, from 11 a.m.-12 p.m. The Chapel Choir’s Advent concert, “Veni, Emmanuel,” is on December 4 from 2:30-4 p.m. Their Candlelight Service of Lessons and Carols is on December 7 from 7:30-9 p.m., with Plutz accompanying on the organ. The community can join the Choir at the “Messiah Sing” on December 12, 7:30-8:45 p.m.
The choirs of Westminster Choir College perform “An Evening of Readings and Carols” December 9 and 10, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the event. A Christmas Eve worship service begins December 24 at 8 p.m.
Princeton University formally opens and closes each academic year with an interfaith service in the Chapel. The building is a kind of oasis in the middle of the campus, meant as a gathering place for students, alumni, and the community.
“It’s humbling to think of all the weddings, funerals, and students who just come and sit in the back of the Chapel, feeling very small,” says Plutz. “This is a place of sanctuary for everyone.”