Colgate’s Chapel House is at once an architectural novelty and a sanctuary. Beneath the flat roof, behind the 1950s abstracted formalism, you’ll see rare works of religious art and books on world religion; you’ll find a dining room, music room, and living quarters. In silence and meditation, you can lose yourself or find yourself at Chapel House, depending on your objective.
An anonymous gift, made by a woman nearly 60 years ago, created this unique retreat as a place where people of faith — or people of no faith — could seek out religious insights and spiritual nourishment. Colgate reaffirmed this mission last week, celebrating the completion of renovations that make the facility more sustainable and accessible.
In keeping with the space itself, the reopening ceremony was far from ordinary. It featured welcoming thanks from Chapel House Director Steven Kepnes and introductory remarks from President Brian Casey. Japanese Zen master Jeff Shore spoke passionately about Chapel House’s reach across oceans and generations.
Vassar College art professor Nicholas Adams guided students, faculty, alumni, and friends on an intellectual tour through the house’s physical, philanthropic, and religious heritage. He noted the various buildings that inspired architect Walter Severinghaus — like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Marcel Breuer’s McComb House.
Adams also highlighted the deep-seated commitment to religious exploration that moved “the lady” to fund the project, as proposed by Ken Morgan, Colgate religion professor and first director of Chapel House. Citing Morgan’s own writings, Adams said:
“Spurred by [her] largesse, Morgan put together a proposal for ‘a small building where a seeker could study how the religious beliefs and practices in all traditions have been presented in books, in recordings of religious music, and in reproductions and originals of religious arts.’ It would be, ‘a place welcoming seekers … who wanted to know more about the religious paths followed by other seekers; about their personal devotional rituals, chanting, prayers, meditation, and what they have read.’ The lady offered Morgan $600,000 for his meditation center and had two requests: her name ‘was never to be mentioned, and she must approve the architectural plans.’”
Charles Hallisey ’75, now the Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist literatures at Harvard Divinity School, reminisced about life as a student working in Chapel House. Hallisey’s undergraduate experience was shaped by the building and the ethos of those who ran it — including legendary faculty members like Morgan and John Ross Carter, the second director of Chapel House. The lady reportedly believed that her project would be worth the money if even one person found meaning in Chapel House. “I am that one person,” Hallisey said.
“Our anonymous benefactor could have no idea that she was creating a rare oasis of peace in a continuously connected world,” Casey said. “Her original intent still resonates and serves as the primary focus of this beautifully designed, carefully restored home. But the impact of her generosity has expanded with the decline of silence and solitude in our society.”
For more details on Chapel House, including information on making overnight reservations, visit colgate.edu/chapelhouse.