In spite of our focus on the design of 20th & 21st century homes, one of our favorite structures in the country has always been a little chapel on the southern edge of the Coconino National Forest in Sedona, Arizona. Known as The Chapel of the Holy Cross, it’s an unusual example of mid-century architecture turning away from its love affair with the glass box.
When we looked around for more information, we found several other small modern chapels throughout the country, some of them considered masterpieces of modern architecture. All of them are very different in design, reflecting their individual moment in time, place and designer, and each is fascinating in its chosen means of expressing “faith” or “religion.” Although several were built under the aegis of the Catholic church, all of them stress they are meant as non-denominational places of individual prayer and meditation.
At the risk of alienating our home-loving readership, we thought it would be fun to explore these small buildings that have an outsized emotional impact so much greater than their physical size. We’re presenting them briefly, one at a time, with the final a short discussion about their significance and relative influence in the world of modern architectural design. We hope you enjoy this small detour as much as we did.
Building: Chapel of the Holy Cross
Architect: August K. Strotz (1925 - 2009) of Anshen & Allen Architects (Stantec since 2010)
Designed & Built: 1954-1956
Address: 780 Chapel Road, Sedona AZ
Building Size: 1,478 SF
“...this chapel is more ‘location’ than ‘architecture,’ which is as it should be... using a minimum of construction to define and utilize a naturally beautiful rock outcropping.” - American Institute of Architects Awards Jury, 1957
Marguerite Brunswig Staude (1899-1988) was a young sculptor working in New York in the 1930’s. A Roman Catholic, as her parents had been, she often visited that city’s famed St. Patrick’s cathedral and – as a modern artist – wondered why more churches didn’t take on more modern architectural forms. She then recalls looking upward and seeing two steel beams forming a cross against the skyline, deciding then and there she would someday build a modern church with the shape of a cross.
In the early 1950’s after her parents were deceased, she was in Los Angeles and took this idea to Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architect-son, whose Wayfarer’s Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes, California (1951) had recently been completed. However, her notion of locating the building in downtown Los Angeles was opposed by the archbishop, fearing a modern edifice would alienate too many followers.
After her marriage to Tony Staude, the couple moved to Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona, where she rekindled her idea of building a cross-shaped chapel, serving both as an inclusive place of meditation and prayer and as a memorial to her deeply religious parents (as a child, her mother had been blessed in person by Pope Pius IX). Searching the Sedona area by plane, Marguerite noticed two red rock spires named “The Nuns,” next to another rock called “The Madonna.” It was shaped, she thought, like a Madonna and child, and near those was a graffiti “Rx” symbol, which pharmacists like her father used for prescriptions. This, she thought, was the place to build.
Seeking an architect, she was taken by a feature article in the January 1951 issue of House Beautiful on Anshen & Allen’s dramatic Silverstone House in Taxco, Mexico (1949, now in ruins) and Staude subsequently hired the San Francisco firm. She and her husband made it clear that the architects were to create “a chapel dedicated to finding God through art” and that – although it was Catholic – it should feel inviting to everyone, regardless of religious association.
The site, the 250-foot high twin peaks of “The Nuns,” was originally part of just over 11 acres of land in the City of Sedona, but part of the Coconino National Forest, in turn belonging to the U.S. Forest Service. After some help from Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, they received approval from the bishop and the complicated process of construction in the rocky isolated landscape was able to begin.
The structure itself uses a steel frame, encased by sandblasted concrete, which reveals the local Verde River aggregate (small stones in the concrete), helping the walls to feel a part of the rock from which they seem to rise. The two long side walls are without openings, while the front and rear walls are entirely of a custom-made smoked glass, fully transparent from end to end.
Building the chapel without destroying the natural landscape around it was a challenge. From the parking lot below, a winding pedestrian ramp skirts the 200-foot-tall rock formation like a hiking trail, leading eventually to the east glass entry wall and a pair of 25-foot-tall aluminum doors.
At 50 feet long and 20 feet wide, the building is 90 feet tall at its downhill (west) side – seen in almost all photographs - and 30 feet tall at the entry (east) end. The volume of the chapel’s interior is a single open space, with the two solid side walls leaning slightly inward as they rise up, exaggerating the dramatic loft of the room. Inside are rows of simple wooden pews, benches along the concrete walls (also sandblasted on the interior), an altar of black marble, and two sculptures by Marguerite; a modern Stations of the Cross sculpture formed of antique railroad spikes, and a stone head of Jesus. There is a basement containing an office and the inevitable gift shop.
When completed, Marguerite gifted the building to the nearest bishop, in neighboring New Mexico, who was unclear what to do with it as he later explained, “There were maybe 50 Catholics in Sedona at the time.” Marguerite tried out various uses for the chapel, none of them successful, so in the late 1960’s it was closed up.
About a decade later, it was discovered that a friend of Marguerite’s had created a controversial sculpture inside, called “Atomic Christ,” designed by the artist to be “...a body melting before a nuclear blast." It was, said the bishop, “a horrible, horrible piece.” After years of complaints, she finally removed the offending artwork, but the chapel remained shuttered until the 1980’s when it was reopened as a simple tourist destination, finally evolving into a genuine chapel for reflection and meditation.
The Chapel remains open to the public with thousands of visitors arriving each year. Yet sadly, the open natural landscape surrounding the Chapel, from which the design derived its inspiration and visual power is not what it was. Because it now sits so close to the edge of the National Forest, its setting of solitude has been destroyed by grossly insensitive residential development, just a stone’s throw away, including a massive faux European mansion of over 11,000 square feet, located almost directly across from the Chapel’s entrance. Fortunately the tall view side remains facing the preserved area, so visitors can still feel some of the connection the place has to the habitat of which it was meant to belong.
The most complete historical and statistical information on this building was found on these two excellent websites:
These are the drawings that won the architects a design award prior to construction:
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