Robert F. Carr Memorial Chapel of St. Savior

 1949 - 1952

The Story

“Too often we think about architecture in terms of the spectacular. There is nothing spectacular about this chapel; it was not meant to be spectacular. It was meant to be simple; and, in fact, it is simple. But in its simplicity it is not primitive, but noble, and in its smallness it is great, in fact, monumental.”

The decision to build a Chapel at IIT originated in the years after World War II with a proposal from the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago's Bishop Wallace E. Conkling. Conkling wanted to increase the local presence of the Episcopal Church and thought IIT's campus was the perfect location. Since the war had soured the relationship between science and religion for many, Conkling saw the Chapel as a place where students interested in the future of technology could form a positive union of the two, calling it a "great educational project of the atomic age."

Construction on the Chapel began in 1949. Original plans were for a Chapel complex, complete with a Parish house and meeting hall. However, the final design was the simple structure that students now refer to as the “God box.” While records are unclear, it seems that this reduction in scope was motivated by a need for the Chapel to be non-denominational. Although it was sponsored and administered, in part, by the Episcopalian Diocese of Chicago, the administration mandated that the Chapel be open to students of all faiths. This was in order to truly achieve the Chapel's goal of engaging the student body “in the search for virtue while we become proficient in the search for things.” In addition to Mies’ aesthetic preferences, this attributes to the understated appearance of the altar and cross, along with the oft-discussed curtain that hangs behind them.

In spite of its humble appearance, the Chapel is an important point in Mies’ oeuvre, both historically and architecturally. Although he said later in life that he would have liked to build a cathedral, that dream was never realized, and the Chapel remains Mies’ only foray into the world of ecclesiastical building. The building stands apart as Mies’ only masonry building outside of Europe. Unlike his other work in America, the walls constructed of blonde bricks in an English bond pattern are not merely decorative, but also support the small building. This marks a break from Mies’ usual division of structure and enclosure. According to Mies, the simple walls are intended to draw the eye upward, making the Chapel a space for contemplation. Rather than encouraging “a longing to become lost,” Mies intended that visitors would feel “the hope of finding oneself” in the small space.

Since its completion in 1952, the Chapel has hosted a weekly service on Sundays, as well as weddings and a plethora of other events, both religious and secular. Following the completion of Wishnick Hall, the Mies Society chose the Chapel as their next renovation project because of its architectural significance. With the help of Dean of Architecture, Donna Robertson, the Mies Society began restoration on the Chapel in 2008. Based on studies done with students, Robertson identified the roof as needing immediate replacement and that was done in the summer of 2009, along with the restoration of the rest of the exterior.

With with the generous assistance of Mies van der Rohe Society members, including lead gifts from Barbi and Tom Donnelley, Colin and Tracey Kihnke, the Regenstein Foundation and Jane Moore Black, Carr Memorial Chapel will be fully restored by the end of Summer 2013. Restoration work included: roof replacement, repairs and replacement of exterior glass and steel, reconstruction of exterior brick corners, refinishing of terrazzo floor, cleaning and repairs to interior brick, upgraded mechanical and electrical components, refinishing of wood doors and benches, cleaning of concrete ceiling panels, lighting replacement, renovation to create ADA-compliant restroom and passageway, and accommodations for air conditioning. In addition, new drapes behind the altar, donated by Donghia, Inc., fulfill modern technical requirements. Created in consultation with Mies’ assistant, Gene Summers, the curtain was specially woven in Italy to match the original. It is made of a blend of fire-retardant fibers and pongee silk, and its pleating restores the original, more elegant pattern chosen by Mies. Cornel Erdbeer, president of Ludwig Interiors, donated his expertise in pleating and sewing to achieve a clean and simple appearance. With its hanging, we restore Mies’ sense of textural balance and coherence of palette, as the heavy silk and creamy color complement the travertine altar and cement-and-brick structure.