White Chapel at Rose-Hulman

Innovative design for Rose-Hulman’s nondenominational space serves as a place of refuge and gathering place for worship.

Terre Haute, IN businessman and 1947 mechanical engineering graduate of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology John White and his wife Elizabeth donated the $1.5 million lead gift for White Chapel at the small private college. Rose-Hulman in Terre Haute is rated #1 in U.S. News and World Report for institutions whose highest degree in engineering is the Master’s.  A devout Catholic, John White wanted the Rose-Hulman campus to have a non-denominational place where groups could gather to worship, where individual counseling could take place and where wedding services could be celebrated. White lived just long enough to see White Chapel (officially The John R. and Elizabeth L. White Chapel) dedicated on October 7, 2001 and his extended family prayed there with him during his last days. White passed away November 23, 2001. Today, his wish for a spiritual place for contemplation and worship on campus lives on in White Chapel.

VOA’s portfolio of projects at Rose-Hulman stretches back to a campus master plan in 1977 and includes Olin Hall and Hadley Hall (1983), a remodeling of the school’s main academic building Moench Hall (1984-87), the Sports and Recreation Center and Cook Stadium (1997) and numerous other buildings and projects. VOA’s design for White Chapel, completed in 2001, remains one of our most iconic building designs. It has emerged as a centerpiece for the institution as well as a spiritual gathering place for the wider Terre Haute community. It is also one of a select few VOA projects specifically designed for religious services. “It’s one of the crescendos in our many projects for Rose-Hulman,” says VOA’s Wilmont “Vic” Vickrey.

VOA designers developed the sculptured shape of the chapel by experimenting with models made of heavy paper. The program stipulation was that the chapel seat approximately 200 plus and include small offices, storage as well as dressing rooms for services/weddings/events. VOA created six paper sculptural iterations of the plan/program to show. VOA’s Vic Vickery brought all these iterations to Terre Haute for the client to see. Independent of each other, Rose-Hulman’s then President Samuel Hulbert, John White as well as representatives of the administration and faculty all selected the same design.

The 5,000 SF White Chapel is instantly identifiable with its wedge-shaped nave. It is a semi-conical hall defined by a series of steel tube arches, which increase in size from the back of the nave to the front. The exterior of the nave shell is clad with diamond-shaped stainless steel panels. The shell is split by a series of vertical ribbon windows and a continuous ridge skylight. The entire east end of the nave is glass to allow the campus to become the backdrop for activities taking place in the chapel.

The non-denominational space immediately became the center of religious services for more than a half-dozen student organizations representing different faiths (Lutheran, Jewish, Catholic and Muslim among them), all drawn from the diverse student body.

White Chapel with its movable tables and chairs can be customized for weddings and reserved by members of the community. As a result, the small college and its culture have been integrated into Terre Haute in a deeper, more meaningful way. Weddings, often of alumni, are regularly celebrated there with their receptions held at the student union or at larger spaces off campus.

The design features acoustical pillows above that both reflect and absorb sound providing favorable acoustics for services and events. The room is tuned for acoustics that accent a solo voice, choral group with accompaniment by piano or small organ, as well as one person lecturing or officiating.

An outdoor garden terrace creates a forecourt to the chapel. A waterfall and water channel mark its southern edge.

The altar table, lectern and two side tables are constructed of red oak from trees that once stood on campus. VOA designed the chapel furniture which was built by Rose-Hulman’s Gary Burgess, facilities manager of the John T. Myers Center for Technological Research with Industry.

Outside, a row of cherry trees dominate the landscaped area adjacent to the chapel. Each tree represents a year that Rose-Hulman has been affiliate of Kanazawa Institute of Technology, a Japanese University.

The site chosen for White Chapel sits at the end of “Speed Lake,” one of two small lakes on campus. Analysis of its subsoil determined that the first 10 feet of soil was too weak to support a structure. The chapel would require caissons installed through the muck, which amplified the costs of the project significantly. It also added a layer of time and complexity to the project, which was originally planned for completion at the millennium.

The Long Arm
VOA’s Vic Vickrey thought a “long arm” was needed to draw students in from their on-campus residences to the chapel. “During construction, the caisson contractor was going to leave the site the next day and bringing it back would be expensive. I thought I’ll absorb the cost as a personal gift to Rose-Hulman,” recounts Vic Vickrey. VOA’s founding principal tapped into his savings to contribute three additional caissons, making the long arm entry to the chapel possible. Vickrey dedicated the extension to his late wife.

The shape of the chapel required an engineered design innovation. VOA architect Kevin Curran chose a diamond-shaped stainless steel shingle for the building’s exterior that could hold its smooth form in heavy rain, snow or in 92 degree heat. The shingle’s interlocking joints allow each to slip against one another. The skin flexes as the chapel’s surface heats up or cools down. This curtain wall material was tested extensively to ensure it would hold up to all Indiana weather conditions.

Today, the uniquely modern nondenominational chapel continues to serve Rose-Hulman students as a place of spiritual refuge and organizations for various faiths as a gathering place for worship. It has also become a destination where the Terre Haute community feels especially welcome at Rose-Hulman. Its innovative design complements the technological spirit of the school. White Chapel stands as shining example of how culture, beauty and community-building are achievable through close collaboration and understanding between an architect and institution.

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