Allegheny Spaces: Ford Memorial Chapel

A century of sanctuary at Ford Memorial Chapel

This story is the second in a three-part series highlighting the histories and functions of campus spaces at Allegheny College. With a string of restorations and renovations, Ford Memorial Chapel has been host to weekly services, weddings, vow renewals, memorial celebrations, lectures and concerts since its inauguration in 1902. The sounds of Ford Chapel’s digital organ and newly restored chimes continue to ring through the campus community. Allegheny Spaces continues next week.

Rotograph Co.
A 1905 handcolored postcard, produced by the New York City-based Rotograph Co., depicts the southwest corner of Ford Memorial Chapel.

As the tall and heavy double doors are pulled open, the hinges whine.

Walking through the east entryway of the chapel, the creaks of floor boards can be heard — until the visitor pauses, looking west to the chancel windows and above at the endless ceiling sky.


Or perhaps during a special concert, powerful sound resonates among the pews, or on a cloudy afternoon, the recently restored chimes ring high above the stone structure.

“Historically, as a religious school, there used to be required chapel, so we certainly have a long history of the space being used for religious practice,” said Jane Ellen Nickell, Allegheny College chaplain. “That sort of symbolizes our religious roots as a college, and our affiliation — even though we’re reconsidering that at the moment. But at the same time, I think it also symbolizes that, while we may have a religious affiliation, we are nonsectarian.”

Nickell described the chapel as a welcoming, multipurpose space, one open to all.

“We don’t just say, ‘only Christians can use the chapel,’ or ‘it can only be used for religious services,’” she said.

For nearly 120 years, North Main Street’s Ford Memorial Chapel has stood — for guests such as Betty Friedan, Bayard Rustin, Maya Angelou and Robert Frost, through two world wars, a series of restorations, countless passersby and most recently, this week’s wind gusts and tornado warning.

Before Ford Chapel was built, a chapel space on the first floor of Bentley Hall once serviced a growing Allegheny College. From there, the chapel space moved into Bentley’s second floor, and eventually into Ruter Hall in the 1850s.

Gifted to Allegheny College by John Baptiste Ford and constructed in its current location in 1901, Ford Chapel was officially dedicated in 1902, with college President William Crawford delivering remarks and Bishop E.G. Andrews offering a dedicatory sermon.

In 2002, the Council of Independent Colleges launched its Historic Campus Architecture Project, funded largely by grants from the Getty Foundation, which is a Los Angeles-based sponsor for humanities projects.

With this funding the CIC, of which Allegheny is part, developed a historic building survey and distributed it to 724 four-year undergraduate institutions across the United States. Allegheny submitted its Survey of Historic Architecture and Design for Ford Memorial Chapel in 2003, and the college’s responses provide a detailed history of the chapel’s construction and restorations, as well as information about the chapel’s architectural style and foundation materials.      

Rock-faced Cleveland sandstone forms the chapel’s foundation and walls, and the rounded arches are typical of the chapel’s Romanesque Revival architecture, according to Allegheny’s survey responses.

At the time of construction, a wooden spire rested atop the chapel’s south tower, but due to rotting, the spire had to be removed in the mid-1900s, and the south tower was expanded in 1939 to comply with changing fire codes, the CIC reports. Now, the south tower is squared off at the top, with no spire replacing the original.

Renovations in 1953 involved covering the four stained glass windows at the chancel, or the front of the chapel space near the altar. Storm damage to the large north- and south-facing stained glass windows in the 1960s, prompted Carl Heeschen and Richard Kleeman, late Allegheny art professors, to design new windows to replace the damaged ones.

With a new initiative in the 1990s, the college began work to restore much of the building to its original design. The four stained glass windows at the chancel were uncovered, and the north and south windows were replaced again with stained glass based on the photographs of the original glass.

More recent updates include a transition from pipe organ to digital organ in 1998, as well as a restoration of the tower chimes in September 2018.

After the college arranged for Bill Pugh, chime and organ technician, to service the chapel chimes last fall, the historic instrument is once again operational, making the Ford Memorial Chapel chimes the oldest set of functioning chimes in the country.

“On the little keyboard, there are 24 keys, but only 14 of them are actually connected to something, because that’s the way they come,” said Jacob Sutter, ’20, who plays piano for Ford Chapel services and began playing the chimes in October. “When they sell these kinds of chimes, they come in 14-note sets, but which 14 notes you get, varies from place to place.”

Sutter typically plays for about 10 minutes at a time, two to three times a week, and adapts melodies from traditional hymns, contemporary songs and folk songs to fit the 14-note capabilities of the chimes.

“It’s really neat,” Sutter said. “It’s a one of a kind thing. There aren’t very many of them left, and the fact that ours are functioning — and functioning well — it’s a good experience to play them.”

As a junior, Sutton said he plans to play the chimes into next year and hopes a new chimes player will maintain the presence of the restored chimes.

When the ringing of the chimes fades, special events, occasional holiday services and weekly services keep the chapel an active space. The only regular religious service now offered at the chapel is Sunday Catholic mass at 6:30 p.m. Attendance at weekly Christian services has been in decline for a while, Nickell said, so the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life started to focus instead on getting students connected with local congregations.

Each day, Nickell said, Ford Chapel offers quiet hours from 7 to 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. to midnight. In the midst of chaotic stresses, finals and arranging summer plans, Allegheny’s historic chapel space offers a place for students, faculty and staff, to study, rest, pray or play music — a place of peace.