AND WHAT OF PRINCIPIA? PART I
by Jeanne Colette Collester
Maybeck’s vision is born of opposites the traditional and experimental, the measured and the spontaneous, the fixed and the fluid. At its best, Maybeck’s architecture strikes a fine balance between historic precedent and personal inventiveness, refined craftsmanship and rugged naturalness, sophisticated calculation and fluid process. To establish a vision for the millennia, however, the tension between permanence and growth must be evident. Maybeck’s oeuvre must transcend time.
Any number of familiar Maybeck buildings might be used to underscore this point. But one masterwork from his late career deserves greater attention, the Principia College Chapel (1931-1934) in Elsah, Illinois. Unusual within Maybeck’s oeuvre, the Principia Chapel is American colonial in style. The challenge was to reinterpret and revitalize a form so permanently embedded in America’s colonial past without slipping into the trap of mere revival. Could this Chapel “grow,” so to speak, into the twentieth century, and then beyond? Could it transcend time? Maybeck himself thought so.
The architect frequently described his Chapel as a “wooden church in a forest, petrified.” He further stated, “We believe the Chapel will outlast any of the real Colonial Churches that have been built in America.” His wife Annie captured the vision from the opposite side when she asked, “Can you feel the calm and peace of the scene-no formality, nothing stiff, the Chapel a gem, but resting on, growing out of, and overgrown by, Nature?” What exactly were the Maybecks suggesting? Dramatically sited 250 feet above the Mississippi River on limestone cliffs carved millions of years ago, the Principia Chapel extends and reshapes nature’s space. But this new spatial environment preserves rather than displaces the natural setting so that the transition between land and architecture appears uninterrupted. Echoing the adjacent sycamore and maple trees, the Chapel seems to have grown out of the prairie bluffs. Maybeck intended the Chapel to look as if it had always existed on this site. Designed for permanence with its dense structural steel framework, heavy reinforced concrete, and footings seven times larger than usual, the Chapel today remains free of settlement cracks and safe from the effects of harsh winters and future earthquakes.
Occupying the highest point and center of the campus, the Chapel symbolizes the very heart of the College’s religious and communal values. Yet for all this grandeur of location, the Chapel itself remains one of Maybeck’s most subtle structures. He lavished years (1924-1934) refining his design. His goal, like that of many artists late in their careers, was utter simplicity and perfection. Clear solid massing replaced distracting ornate details. An elaborate steeple was simplified and finally capped with a renaissance urn. Only the essentials remained to inspire. Repeatedly Maybeck instructed his supervisors, “Watch each line to perfection, mouldings, entases, let no one swerve an iota from the drawing.” And again, “Every proportion [has been] perfected, stones must fit perfectly . . . .The Chapel is a Sunday job on which everybody has ‘done his best.’”
Clad in a warm buff Indiana limestone, the Chapel nonetheless is remarkably free of regularity. The stonework, while carefully measured and numbered, is “shot-sawn,” leaving filings in the grooves to rust and thereby create texture, color and age. Uneven spacing in the fenestration, random-width paneling on the interior walls, natural wood imprints in the concrete ceiling all free the eye to explore. Maybeck has succeeded in creating a space where the heart and mind feel both secure and free. Why was the Chapel built, Maybeck might query, if not to inspire the worshipper also to have a vision for the millennia? Too adulatory? Then importunes Maybeck, “It is needless to say more than ‘go see it.’”
Jeanne Colette Collester is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Principia College. She is the author of Frederick Oakes Sylvester: The Principia Collection, and Rudolph Ganz: A Musical Pioneer.