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  • The Danforth Chapel Program on the Public American Campus
  • Margaret M. Grubiak (bio)

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Figure 1.

Danforth Chapel, Colorado State University, James M. Hunter, Fort Collins, Colorado, 1954–55. Photograph by Margaret Grubiak.

In an evaluation of the American college chapel published in the late 1950s, religious historian Martin Marty celebrated Colorado State University’s Danforth Chapel and eight other college and university chapels as outstanding examples of a new era in church building. He believed these chapels, with their modernist, progressive architecture, could make religion relevant to the modern age, becoming “the magnet of students who before this never knew that the Christian faith was addressing itself to them as children of the twentieth century.”1 In its stark form and small size, the Danforth Chapel at Colorado State exemplified the kind of worship space that turned a focus to simple and intimate worship (Figure 1). The Colorado State University Danforth Chapel was remarkable as a religious monument on a public university campus, and despite Marty’s identification of it as a Christian space, its architecture directly engaged [End Page 77] the mid-century emphasis on nonsectarianism on the university campus.

In declaring the “demise” of the individual architectural patron on campus in the same article, Martin Marty overlooked the donor of the very chapel he celebrated: industrialist William H. Danforth (Figure 2). Marty contended that colleges and universities had themselves become the new patrons of progressive modern architecture, employing outstanding architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Eero Saarinen for chapel projects. But over a twenty-year period from about 1937 to 1957, William Danforth and his foundation funded some fifteen chapels on colleges and university campuses, some revivalist in their architecture but many modernist, across the United States. More importantly, Danforth implemented the last major religious building program on the public campus, constructing eleven of his chapels at tax-supported universities. The Danforth Chapels compose a widespread religious landscape united by the Danforth name, which challenged the conception of a strict separation of church and state in the mid-twentieth century.

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Figure 2.

William H. Danforth in 1954, standing in the Colorado State University Danforth Chapel in front of the dedication plaque and Christ in the Garden of Gesthemane painting required for each Danforth Chapel. From The Colorado Aggie Alumnus (May–June 1954): cover. Courtesy Colorado State University, University Historic Photograph Collection, Archives and Special Collections.

The Danforth Chapel program also contributed to a new university chapel type: the nondenominational meditation chapel. The Danforth Chapels’ identity as nondenominational spaces was critical to their inclusion within public universities. But even this nonsectarian claim was distinct from later twentieth-century notions of multifaith spaces. The chapels’ religious iconography required by the Danforth Foundation skewed toward a Christian emphasis even while professing an accommodation for Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish worship. This frank celebration of Christianity and simultaneous welcoming of other faiths was not contradictory at mid-century. The chapels’ small size and limited use ensured they were not shades of sectarian parish churches but distinctive spaces for meditation refocused on the sanctuary. The Danforth Chapel program offered an early model of how to make religion available within communities that needed to respect religious difference.

The Problem and Promise of Religion in the Public University

The place of religion on the public university campus has a complex history. Whereas private and denominational institutions could take whatever stance they wished on religion, state-supported institutions were to obey their own state constitutions as well as hold two aspects of the United States Constitution in balance: the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment forbids states to endorse a particular religion, while the Free Exercise Clause ensures free practice of religion in state institutions. In theory, publicly funded colleges and universities were to be neutral to religion, accommodating all beliefs and discriminating against none.

In practice, public colleges and universities [End Page 78] in the late nineteenth century were infused with a Christian culture. In 1890, University of Michigan President James B. Angell, himself a Congregationalist, gave a description of religion in state universities to allay concerns...


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