History & Architecture

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One April day in 1925, James Buchanan Duke walked through a forest with his friend, William Preston Few, in the hope of finding a suitable site for a new university. Walking away from Durham along a plateau full of pines, gums, hickories, and oaks, Duke paused at the highest point and said: “Here’s where it ought to be.” He decided that the Chapel should stand at the center of the university.

“I want the central building to be a church, because such an edifice would be bound to have a profound influence on the spiritual life of the young men and women who come here.”

Among the buildings of West Campus, Duke University Chapel was the first to be planned and the last to be built. e cornerstone was laid on October 22, 1930, but construction continued for the next two years. Students often gathered near the huts of the stone carvers that occupied the land directly behind the construction site; they enjoyed watching the Chapel rise higher and higher.

The Chapel was first used for Commencement in 1932 and was formally dedicated on June 2, 1935.

In 2015-16, Duke University invested $19.2 million in a significant restoration of the Chapel.

The architectural style of the Chapel is inspired by English Gothic and represents one of the last great collegiate Gothic projects in this country.

The chief designer of the Chapel was Julian Abele, a prominent African-American architect in the firm of Horace Trumbauer in Philadelphia. A plaque in the Chapel’s narthex honors his architectural legacy at Duke and elsewhere.

The stone carving in the Chapel was sculpted by John Donnelly, Inc., of New York. All of the woodwork was fashioned by Irving and Casson, A. H. Davenport, Inc., of Boston, and designer Charles H. Crowther.

The 77 stained-glass windows and the ornamental lead-and-gold symbols in the doors were designed and made by G. Owen Bonawit, Inc., of New York, along with designer S. Charles Jaekle and craftsman Hugh Doherty.

Charles Keck, of New York, sculpted the recumbent statues on the tombs in the Memorial Chapel. The ironwork was hewn by the William H. Jackson Company of New York.

Chapel interior: 291ft x 63ft
The nave proper: 73 ft high and 39 ft wide
The tower: 38 ft square at the base and 210 ft high

The Chapel is constructed of stone from the Duke Quarry near Hillsborough, North Carolina, located twelve miles west of Durham. The trimmings, lectern, pulpit, and the balustrade and vaults of the choir are of limestone from Bedford, Indiana. The walls of the nave and vaults of the nave and transepts are composed of Guastavino tile, a stone composite material.

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