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ARCHITECTURE: Chapel opens at Marine Corps museum

- The Washington Times - Friday, October 23, 2009

Docent Raymond Perry of the National Museum of the Marine Corps and his wife Mary Jane will be renewing their wedding vows Saturday after 50 years of marriage. The couple will be the first to hold a ceremony in the newly completed Semper Fidelis Memorial Chapel just up the hill from the museum in Quantico, Va.

Dedicated Thursday by the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, the small, 77-seat building adds a humanistic touch to the growing museum and its campus. This nondenominational sanctuary is nestled into the woods to provide a contemplative space for Marines and non-Marines alike.

Construction of the timber, glass and stone pavilion, which began in December, cost about $5 million and was paid for by a donation from former Marine captain Timothy Day, the founder of Bar-S Foods Co. in Phoenix.

The chapel's modest architecture is a refreshing change from the circular museum with its assertive mast. In designing the 2,100-square-foot building, Denver-based Fentress Architects, the same firm responsible for the museum, shelved heroic gestures for a barnlike structure framed in Douglas fir.

Like the larger, spire-topped museum, the one-room chapel conveys a sense of uplift but in a more subdued way. Its overhanging, slate roof simply slopes upward from the entrance to the altar side of the building. This tilt reveals rows of copper-tipped fir purlins under the eaves that enrich the design in a manner akin to Asian pagodas.

Rhythmically arranged around the perimeter are paired timber columns rather than heavy pillars to lighten the architecture. The spaces in between these posts are simply filled with glass and the corners of the building anchored in fieldstone from western Maryland.

Inside the worship hall, the glass appears more transparent than the green-tinted panes on the exterior to provide views of a fountain behind the altar and stone benches and trees surrounding the building. When the leaves fall, the museum will be clearly visible in the distance as an all too obvious reminder of the main event on these 22 acres of parkland.

As a shrine in nature, the Marine chapel reflects an enduring tradition in American architecture, from James Renwick's tiny, stone church in Georgetown's Oak Hill Cemetery to the lacy, wooden "Ozark Gothic" chapels designed by Fay Jones, an Arkansas disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Given its adherence to this practice, as well as its allusions to the field chapels improvised by Marines, the Corps' "semper fidelis" ("always faithful") is an apt motto for the new building. "The openness of the building with its glass sides and slanted roof is intended to recall the tent canopies found in combat zones," says architect Brian Chaffee, who compares the chapel's slablike pews to ammunition cases.

The discipline expected of the military emerges in well-ordered, crisp details throughout the building. In the sanctuary, the inner faces of the wooden columns march around the walls, while stripes of granite extend across the floor to fill the spaces in between the paired posts. Overhead, the scissor trusses under the wood-paneled ceiling are reminiscent of crossed swords.

More literal military references are apparent on the glass walls. Spelled out on the side panes are the values Marines hold dear, such as commitment, courage and vigilance. Behind the altar, a silhouette of a Marine kneeling in prayer is etched into the window along with a hymn verse sung at several presidential funerals.

Spaces for mechanical equipment and a restroom are concealed at the entrance within walls of the same fieldstone found on the exterior. This inside-outside relationship of materials and structure strengthens the building's connection to its setting.

Unfortunately, that backdrop includes additional bathrooms in a small pavilion sited close to the chapel. Worse still, the service building diminishes the lofty purpose of the worship hall by mirroring its architecture so the sacred and the profane appear the same.

Still, it is a functional necessity for visitors to the chapel and the surrounding Semper Fidelis Memorial Park, which is being developed with additional trails and commemorative plaques. According to a foundation spokeswoman, nine weddings have already been booked through mid-2010.