22 March 2009

Willard Memorial Chapel

Willard Memorial Chapel, on the former campus of Auburn Theological Seminary, was a gift to the seminary from Caroline and Georgianna Willard in memory of their father, Sylvester Willard, who for forty years served as secretary to the seminary's board of trustees, and their mother, Jane Frances Case Willard. A fine example of the Romanesque Revival style of architecture, the gray and red stone building was completed in 1894. It is one of a very small number of remaining buildings associated with the once-beautiful seminary campus.

The chapel is "the only example of a complete Tiffany interior," according to Harold Jaffe, President of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Society. Designed by the Tiffany Glass and decorating Company of New York, the chapel features fourteen opalescent windows, nine leaded glass chandeliers, mosaic floors, oak wainscotting, and carved oak and gold stencilling. It features a stunning stained glass window of "Christ Sustaining Peter on the Water" inspired by a painting by Frederick Shields. One of the nation's preeminent interior designers, Tiffany is remembered for beautiful ornamental lamps and stained glass windows, but he and his firm also created mosaics, silver, jewelry and pottery. His works decorated the homes of the country's most prominent families, and in 1881 he redecorated the reception rooms of the White House. According to J. Alistair Duncan, author, appraiser, and Tiffany expert, "the value of the individual items in the Willard Chapel is based on the fact that they are a part opf a uniqure interior, one of significant importance within Tiffany's total work. Practically all his other church interiors have been destroyed through the years, which makes it especially important that the Willard Chapel be kept intact for the appreciation of both the public and art historians.

After the relocation of Auburn Theological Seminary in 1939, the chapel was sold to the Seventh-Day Adventist congregation, which used the site as a place of worship for decades while preserving its artistic and architectural integrity.

In [1989-90], the property was acquired by a local antique dealer who planned to dismantle the chapel, sell its interior components piecemeal at auction, and convert the building into a rock-music nightclub tentatively called "Rock of Ages." When the sudden sale and preposterous plan became known, the Community Preservation Committee mobilized to raise funds to purchase and preserve the chapel. Among the first to make a pledge of financial supporty was Rev. Grant S. Miller, of the seminary's Class of 1936. The CPC publicized the historic and artistic importance of the chapel, highlighted its value as a destination for tourists, made the site accessible to the community for cultural events and special occasions, and successfully raised funds from donors large and small to purchase the property by the deadline set by the new owner.

The Willard Memorial Chapel and the adjoining Welch Memorial Building achieved National Historic Landmark status in 2005. The site is maintained by the Community Preservation Committee, whose offices are located in the Welch Memorial Building.

Willard Memorial Chapel and Welch Memorial Building