Colton Chapel

One of the most prominent architectural firms to be represented at Lafayette is Carrère and Hastings, the designers of Colton Chapel. The firm, founded by John Merven Carrère (1858-1911) and Thomas Hastings (1860-1929), was instrumental in introducing Beaux-Arts architecture to America. Among their many prominent buildings is the New York Public Library (1895-1902), which marked the first major acceptance of their ideas and also the first success of Beaux-Arts architecture in America.

Both Carrère and Hastings studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The Ecole was founded during the Napoleonic era and dominated French architecture into the early 20th century. As an upholder of historical traditions, the Ecole taught the design of public architecture constructed in traditional stone. It advocated strict symmetry and clearly articulated parts. Details were to be restrained and high finished. The proper sources for architectural design were Roman antiquity and the Renaissance, and particular admiration was reserved for the cool classicizing design of the great Italian architect, Andrea Palladio (1508-80).

Beaux-Arts architecture was popular in America between 1900 and the Depression. It rejected the romantic and picturesque expression of Romanesque and Late Gothic Revival and replaced these with ideals of order, logic, elegance and clarity, all of which seemed necessary prerequisites to the new century. Although this type of architecture was later decried as yet another revival by such early modernists as Le Corbusier (1887-1965), it is worth noting that its principles of order, when stripped of classical details and executed in new materials, are a major source for the International Style, which dominated early and middle 20th- century architecture.

Colton Chapel both epitomizes the Beaux-Arts style and is quite original. Its basic design consists of three elements–rotunda, foyer, and steeple. The domed rotunda of the chapel is relatively unusual for the period. Authority for domed, centralized churches, however, goes back to the Renaissance and to the round temples of ancient Rome, and thus would be appropriate in a Beaux-Arts building.

During the Renaissance, forward-looking architects such as Donato Bramante (c. 1444-1514) wished to replace the longitudinal basilica with domed centralized churches and ran into resistance from the more traditional clergy. Even in the 17th century, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was forced to combine his great dome at Saint Paul’s Cathedral (1675-1709) with a long nave. Even Lafayette had its own controversy. Correspondence about Colton Chapel indicates that Mrs. Colton had to be persuaded of the advisability of a round design and subsequently assured of “an old-fashioned Presbyterian type pulpit.” After the 1965 fire in Colton, which gutted the interior, a central altar was proposed (complete with an elaborate theological justification) but eventually rejected. Luckily, the fire that resulted in an unfortunate modernization of the interior did not destroy the exterior.

Colton is constructed of Indiana limestone, giving it the whiteness appropriate to Beaux-Arts idealism. The arched windows are Palladian. The windows in the transept wings, with their free-standing columns supporting the inner arches, are specifically derived from Palladio’s Palazzo della Ragione in Vicenza (begun 1546). The building’s Palladian references place it in good company. Palladio is certainly the most influential classicizing architect in history.

The steeple of Colton Chapel rises in four stages. Its dominant rectilinearity, which is a counterpoint to the overall design of the chapel, is relieved by ornamental pilasters, brackets and urns, all employed in a restrained manner. Colton’s steeple was inspired by Christopher Wren, who rebuilt many of the parish churches of London after the Great Fire and who was known, above all, for his original steeple designs in those edifices. Colton’s steeple is an appropriate accompaniment to the classical and polished design of the entire building.

So Colton Chapel reflects Renaissance ideals popularized in the 16th century by Palladio, re-thought in the 17th century by Wren, and given a Beaux-Arts interpretation in the 20th century. It is indicative of the enduring nature of classicism and the particular talents of the firm of Carrère and Hastings that these multiple sources could be synthesized into such a fine building.

From “Lafayette College Architecture: In Context” by Robert Saltonstall Mattison. Easton, PA: Friends of Skillman Library, 1991.