Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Phelps Stokes Chapel: Home

Phelps Stokes Chapel

Excerpt from Building A College: An Architectural History of Berea College[1]


Phelps Stokes Chapel, 1903-06

Originally called Main Chapel from 1904-33 until it was renamed in honor at Miss Stokes

Architects: Howells and I. N. Phelps Stokes, New York City

Consultant: J. Cleveland Cady, New York City

Supervisor of Construction: Josiah Burdette; G. T. Spencer was foreman of the brick and stonework

Cornerstone laid: June 8, 1904

Dedication: January 7, 1906

Cost: $64,000

John G. Fee was tbe pastor of tbe original Berea Church, a log structure that was built in tbe Glade on a site that is today tbe Glades Christian Church. Following tbe Civil War and Fee's return to Berea, the congregation voted in 1866 to erect a suitable house of worship and in 1867, they built a rough plank frame structure sixteen by twenty-four feet. This structure was used for tbe first classes and would hold about fifty people for a church service. The building sat close to the present site of Boone Street. At some time, date unknown, another larger chapel was built on the brow of the ridge behind what is today Phelps Stokes Chapel. This chapel was whitewashed both inside and out and seated about three hundred people. It burned in the early morning hours of January 1, 1879. Fee again raised funds for a replacement structure which the Prudential Committee voted to have a sixty-four by forty-four feet interior measurement. This Gothic wooden structure, Main Chapel, was built in 1880, across Chestnut Street from the home of John Rogers (PCM, January 20 and 27, April 14, May 3, June 30, July 18 and 24, 1879). It seated 500.

The Prudential Committee voted tbe Gothic style chapel should have four ventilators, the double hung windows would be weighted for easy movement, a middle aisle would be three and one-half feet wide, window louvers inside or out would control tbe intensity of light and heavy oak timbers in the basement would support the structure. The plans and specifications were drawn by tbe architects Anderson and Stafford of Richmond, KY. Lumber was cut and hauled to tbe site from the Glade, cisterns were dug to provide water for the Baptismal Font and pumps were installed to bring the water inside. However, a shingle roof instead of tbe approved tin roof was installed. The walls were plastered and the wainscoting was stained walnut color. Lightning rods and copper wire were installed for further protection. Some of the materials were shipped to Berea from Chicago (PCM, July 24, August 5 and 25, October 27 and
November 10, 1879).

When this structure was built, most Freed Blacks had left White churches and had formed their own denominations, especially the African Methodist Episcopal Church. However, in Berea, Blacks and Whites lived side by side and worshipped side by side. Half Berea's student population was Black. Black flight from integrated corporate worship would not occur in Berea until after the passage of the Day Law. The College needed a large assembly hall/chapel to accommodate the students and town's people. This Gothic Chapel was the answer. John G. Fee served as pastor to the students and town's people from 1854 until his resignation in 1895 and Principal John Rogers served as the assistant pastor for twenty of those early years. "Tablets with the date of the founding of "First Church of Berea" [Union Church], together with the declaration of her foundation principles and appropriate scripture texts were [ordered to be] painted on each side of the pulpit" by President Frost in 1896 (BC Reporter, November, 1896). Fee had resigned his pastorate at Main Chapel (Union Church) over religious differences with Frost concerning "sprinkling or immersion" baptism. Fee consequently founded, built and served Second Church, the First Christian Church/Disciples of Christ that was sited just west of Main Chapel.

The new Gothic chapel, said to have cost $9,000, was opened with lectures and concerts on April 18, 1880. However, this chapel caught fire and was rapidly consumed on the afternoon of January 30, 1902. Ellen Best Evans' father, later the College Dentist, was student monitor when the fire consumed the Chapel. President Frost gave him $15 to replace his clothing and books (Dean of Labor, Dr. Wilson Evans' note). The $5,000 insurance was to be used to build a new chapel, but during the interval, the Tabernacle with new construction and weatherproofing served as the college chapel until a new "Main Chapel" could be completed in 1906. Two days following the destructive fire, students and staff partitioned the Tabernacle and with boards, building paper and stoves they weatherproofed and consecrated the space for worship. Professor Le Vant Dodge said: "It was fitted up for full use and for a great baptismal service the following Sunday" (Berea Citizen, January 11, 1906, 1).

Partly because of the fire and because two new churches had been built close by, the new Baptist Church (1897) and Rev. Fee's Second Church/Disciples Church (1896), many students made the decision to attend town churches. The Baptist and Methodist pastors "demanded" that students be allowed to attend their Sunday School classes (Frost diary). But in 1901, "the College faculty [with the guidance of President Frost] voted that the main body of students must attend the Union Sunday School" and in 1902, the Board of Trustees made the decision that all students be required to attend the College Sunday Night Chapel (PAR, June, 1902). It must be remembered that until 1896, the College chapel "buildings served not only the College students as First Church, "Union Church", Mother of the Institution, but also all Berea's town people. By 1907, four denominational churches had been built in Berea but as late as the 1960s, all students were required to attend College Sunday Night Chapel.

Miss Olivia E. Phelps Stokes (NY) and her sister Caroline (CA), daughters of James Phelps Stokes, had been previous donors to the College; and had given funds for a department of nursing instruction (BTM, June 23, 1898). In February, 1902, following the fire that destroyed the Gothic Main Chapel, Miss Phelps Stokes asked President Frost what was needed most, a dormitory or chapel. She gave $500 to build a men's industrial building where they could learn the skills required to build a chapel. Then in 1904, she anonymously gave the generous gift to replace the chapel. She gave the money "in the hopes that Berea students might live a life permeated with the consciousness of God and with lives that might find in the chapel their central source of spiritual inspiration." Her gift also required that students, as far as possible, construct the building and that her name not be attached to the building. This gift came at the same time that the Board of Trustees and the Prudential Committee were discussing Kentucky House Bill 25, the Day Law, concerning segregated education. The Board decided not to postpone the construction of the chapel nor of the Carnegie Library (BTM, March 30, 1904). Consequently, students made 750,000 bricks in the newly constructed Brickyard at Ruckers/Dead Horse Knob; 33,000 feet of timber came from the school forests; and students employed in the Wood Working Department produced all the dressed interior woodwork. The bricks were laid in a Flemish bond pattern. G. T. Spencer was foreman of the brick and stonework and Josiah Burdette, Trustee and father-in-law to Berea's first Mayor John Lewis Gay, supervised the building's construction and took special care with the interior oak woodwork.

During Commencement on June 2, 1904, Mrs.John A. R. (Elizabeth) Rogers laid the cornerstone and Henry Churchill King, President of Oberlin College, gave the keynote address (BCABG, box 3.5). The cornerstone contained a current college catalog, a Berea Citizen, an historical sketch of the college, a note from the donor of the funds, and the announcement concerning the hostile Day Law legislation and Berea College's steps to provide security for her Black students. The Flemish bond red brick, Colonial building, described as "the grandest college chapel in' the interior part of the country" (Berea Citizen, December 28, 1905,1), was eighty-three by one hundred fifty feet, had an eighteenth century styled clock tower with cupola that rose one hundred five feet, seated 1000 in the auditorium and 400 in the gallery, 300 in the Chapter Room and had three Bible study classrooms on the north side which seated 100 students each. Four clock faces were set into small Doric temple facades that in turn supported a copper covered dome. These clocks were manufactured by Howard Clock Company and were installed later in 1917. The wooden eaves and cornice were decorated with dentils and pendant "boxed" guttae.

Main Chapel, as a Doric temple, has large modified Palladian style second floor windows whose fan lit tops fill the arches. The carved limestone keystones of these window arches seemingly support the deep entablature as though they serve as impost blocks, and of course the brick and limestone Doric pilasters of the Chapel's symmetrical temple facade do support the entablature. The first floor windows have flat arched tops with central limestone keystones. All entrances have classical ingredients; the side entrances incorporate a projecting pediment that protects the fan lit doorway; and the main facades have modified Palladian entranceways with cast iron Corinthian three-quarter columns at their sides. The whole structure, like a Roman temple, sits on a brick base that is capped by a limestone molding. Rising stairs at all entrances welcome the worshiper. The year Main Chapel was dedicated, Frank Lloyd Wright had just completed the construction of Unity Temple in Oak Park, IL, America's first cast concrete building and later considered one of the most innovative church structures ever built in the United States.

When Main Chapel was dedicated, portraits painted by Jane Bartlett of "Father" and Mrs.John G. Fee, Principal and Mrs. John Rogers, President Fairchild, Dr. Pearsons, Principal Hunting and Miss Kate Gilbert were hung on the walls making the chapel seem like "a home for the Berea spirit and traditions". It was steam heated and electrically lit (BTM, October 21, 1904; BQ, April 1906, 17·18). A hymn written by W. Bradbury was sung at the dedication service: "Praise God, Ye oaks that sheltered here the Founder's consecrated band,...Swing wide, Ye gracious chapel doors to welcome in aspiring youth... Stand square O student builded walls..."(Berea Citizen January 11, 1906, 1). At the suggestion of President William Hutchins and Trustees of Berea College and agreed to by the Phelps Stokes Foundation "Main Chapel" was rededicated (1932) during College Commencement to Miss Phelps Stokes following her death (BTM, November 18, 1932; Berea Citizen, June 1, 1933, 1; and Berea Alumnus, April 1957, 8·9).

"Lavatories" in the basement were installed during April, 1916. In 1917, Olivia Phelps Stokes gave a gift of chimes (ten Meneely Bells, $12,000) to honor President Frost. These bells were fabricated in New York. The large "F" bell is inscribed: "These bells commemorate the 25th year of William Goodell Frost's Presidency of Berea College and his unfailing, self sacrificing devotion to the College and its interests." The sixteen note chimes, often called Westminster Chimes, were originally heard from St. Mary's Tower at Cambridge, England. The words to accompany the Handel composed "Cambridge Quarters" are:

"Lord in the hour,
Be thou my Guide,
That by thy power,
No foot may slide."

It was hoped that the chimes could be installed while the President was away from campus. However, he learned of the "secret" and was present for part of the installation (Frost diary, May 23, 1917; Berea Citizen, June 14, 1917, 2). Because school enrollments were so large during the early 1920s, and "having in mind the need of increasing the seating capacity of the chapel, ... a second gallery was contemplated being added to seat more ,students". Too many structural changes would have been necessary for the construction and finances were limited for such an addition. Thus, construction did not take place. But Isaac Phelps Stokes (nephew of Olivia and Caroline) did provide blue prints for the expansion if finances ever became available (Frost diary, October, 1919; W. J. Hutchins correspondence to the architect, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, November, 1920, and December 28, 1923). However, during the summer of 1923, the sanctuary platform which originally extended behind the central arch, was raised, -widened and extended into the central seating area. The Samuel H. Kress Foundation gave $35,000 for a new M. P. Moller pipe organ that was dedicated on October 31, 1954. The Foundation also gave an endowment of $45,000 for organ maintenance and for recital performances (Berea Citizen, August 12, 1954, 1).

Renovations, 1956, 1997, 1999

During the summer of 1956, sixteen hundred new cushioned seats with a fold-up mechanism, curtains, new lighting fixtures, and an invisible sprinkler system were installed; the north rooms were renovated and all the woodwork was thoroughly cleaned, sanded and ready for the beginning of classes in September (Berea Citizen, October 11,1956, 9).

During the summer of 1997, the Chapel was again renovated: all woodwork was sanded and sealed, walls were painted, new carpets laid and new but fewer cushioned wide seating was installed. During the restoration, paint supplies were stored beside the organ machinery and their fumes corroded the mechanism requiring a multi·thousand dollar repair. Required Sunday night chapels and Thursday afternoon chapels were abolished and by the nineties even fewer full College assemblies were required of each student. At times during evening Convocations only part of the main chapel floor has been occupied by an audience. With fewer seats the audience appears to be larger and the new seating also gives space for larger bodies. Student enrollments have remained constant, but body size has increased since 1906!

Geo-thermal heating and cooling was installed during the summer of 1999 when the old hot water and steam system was removed and scores of borings were drilled into the front lawn. Fiber-optic and computer cables were also installed. The brick was tuck·pointed and the exterior was painted. During this utility installation, it was discovered that the rafters and ceiling were in immediate need of repair; consequently, the building was condemned and Convocation programs were put on hold and moved to Union Church until repairs could be made. Frank Messer and Sons 'Construction Company, Lexington, were in charge of the renovations and costs as of August 1999, were in excess of $600,000. After a semester's construction, Convocations resumed. The clock tower was restored during the summer of 2005.

Phelps Stokes Today


[1] Citation: Boyce, Robert Piper. Building A College: An Architectural History of Berea College. Self-published. Berea, Ky: Berea College Printing Services, 2006, p119-123.

NOTE: This content is reproduced here with permission of the author and is COPYRIGHT PROTECTED. Fair Use access granted for educational purposes only, therefore, this content may be used in the classroom or classroom assignments without prior permission as long as proper citation is provided. For commercial use, publication, or reproduction, permission must be obtained from copyright holder or owner.

Works Cited

Boyce, Robert Piper. Building A College: An Architectural History of Berea College. Self-published. Berea, Ky: Berea College Printing Services, 2006, p119-123.

Phelps Stokes Chapel. Digital image. Berea College n.d. Web. 3 September 2015. <>.

Related Guides by Subject