Architectural History of the Three Chapels

The tale of the Three Chapels is intertwined with the development of an architectural plan for the Brandeis campus soon after the University was founded.  The concept was special from its inception.  In contrast to the rectilinear buildings of the original Saarinen Master Plan, the original design - for a single chapel - was defined by a rhythm of undulating brick walls, which enclosed a common area of worship for all three faiths.  Isolated from the main campus, the chapel's sculptural form, enhanced by its dramatic play of light, was harmoniously integrated with the rolling character of the site. 

Because the chancellery of the Archdiocese in Boston objected to the original interdenominational character of the chapel, a revised proposal with three separate areas of worship in the same building was devised.  Both Saarinen designs were rejected without any official word from the University.  When the site for the chapel was consecrated in 1952, the projected chapel, which was to be a chapel for Jewish worship that would offer hospitality to all students, was designed by Harrison & Abramovitz of New York.  The student body strongly opposed the project urging the University to follow the original plan for an interfaith chapel:  "Our view in this matter is based primarily on our desire that the University pursue policies which will make it possible now and in the future for students of all faiths to join an academic community where religious differences are neither denigrated nor accented, where students are encouraged to accept each other as partners in the common effort to break down the barriers that bolster prejudice, discrimination, and other forms of group antagonism."

In response, the architects submitted a revised design in which there were two small rooms attached for the worship of other faiths.  The student protest did not subside as this proposal denied the concept of equality and brotherhood for which they strove.  In October 1953, University officials agreed to build three separate chapels, giving each faith its own house of worship. The project drew national attention and was regarded as a striking symbol of the American communion of diversity, "a together of separateness," "a comfortable coexistence of diverse faiths, cultures and individualities."

Three Chapels and Muslim Worship Space

The three chapels, the landscape that surrounds them, and the Muslim worship space in Usdan Student Center, are being renovated thanks to a generous gift from an anonymous donor. 

The goal in developing the renovation scope was to address the highest priorities of the various groups who use, oversee and maintain these spaces, within the gift funding available for the project.

The scope of the project was determined based on the University's 2008 facilities assessment study and through consultation with all four chaplains together with representatives from Facilities Services, Conference and Events and the Division of Student Life.

For the three chapels, the scope included replacement or refinishing of floors; replacement of the main doors and wall sections containing those doors; renewal of woodwork on the interior of the main entrance facades; complete renewal of the existing bathrooms; new lighting; new paint; new furniture; renewal of the lectern or pulpit; repair of the ark and restoration of the ark curtain in Berlin Chapel; and some minor cosmetic and functional items. In addition, in connection with the upcoming landscape work around the chapels, the mechanical systems of all three chapels will be connected to the University's Building Management System, to allow scheduled control of those mechanical systems, which is expected to result in considerable energy cost savings.

In the Muslim worship space in Usdan, the project scope included reconfiguring the kitchen to make room for the inclusion of an ablution sink; reconfiguration/right-sizing of two spaces to make them more useful; the creation of a storage closet; and new carpeting and paint.

The landscape/hardscape renovation around the chapels will encompass repaving of all asphalt walkways; selective repair of stone walls; and cleaning and renewal of Chapels Pond, which is an important element of our stormwater management system. 

Work on Harlan Chapel was completed in the first week of December 2009 and work in Bethlehem Chapel, Berlin Chapel and the Muslim worship space in Usdan began simultaneously immediately after that. All interior renovations were completed in late February 2010. The landscape and hardscape work around the three chapels will commence in mid-May and is scheduled to be complete by mid-August 2010.

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