Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: Our Lady of Mercy Chapel, Salve Regina University, Newport, RI

Architect: Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP, New York, NY: Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, senior partner; Grant F. Marani, AIA, FRAIA, partner; Charles H. Toothill, senior associate; and Megan St. Denis, associate, project managers

Associate Architect and Liturgical Consultant: Richard W. Quinn, FAIA, Newport, RI

Architect of Record: Newport Collaborative Architects, Newport, RI




New Construction – less than 30,000 sq.ft.

Winner: Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP

Shingle Gem

By Martha McDonald

Founded in 1947 by the Sisters of Mercy, Salve Regina is a small (2,600 enrollment) co-ed Catholic university nestled in the heart of Newport's historic mansion district. The 80-acre campus borders Newport's famous Cliff Walk and encompasses a number of historic houses that have been converted into educational facilities. Along the way, a couple of unfortunate Modernist buildings have been added.

Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) was asked to design a new recreation center for Salve Regina in 1997. "The local community was very concerned before we began designing the recreation center," says Grant F. Marani, AIA, FRAIA, partner, at the firm. "Neighbors were wary of Salve Regina. When they heard the new recreation center was going to house an indoor basketball court, they feared it might overwhelm the neighborhood." RAMSA allayed those concerns by working in the language of the Shingle Style to reduce the apparent mass of the building and by locating much of the building's program below grade.

After the successful completion of the Rodgers Recreation Center, RAMSA was invited back to design a new chapel in 2006. "In our work on the recreation center, we built the bridge that made everyone happy," Marani says. "Most people are surprised to learn there is a basketball court inside the building. Everyone was very pleased. When we went back to the Historic District Commission (HDC) for the chapel, it was a much easier process."

"Like the Rodgers Center, the design of the chapel was under the purview of HDC, and this involved numerous presentations dealing with issues such as siting, overall height and massing, architectural character, materials, and details such as window profiles. While we had many, many meetings concerning the recreation center, only a few meetings – I think three – were required for the chapel, because our design was sensitive to the community's concerns."

The new 11,500 sq.ft. Shingle-style Our Lady of Mercy Chapel fits into the campus, looking as if it might have been designed and built at the same time as the nearby Peabody & Stearns and McKim, Mead & White mansions. It is located on a central site in the heart of the campus, which had been vacant except for a small gardeners' shed, now demolished.

"We talked to Salve Regina about a number of sites and in the end, this was the most logical choice," Marani notes. "It is central and very close to the administration center, so it is the physical as well as the spiritual heart of the campus."

The two-story building is slightly angled to the street grid, establishing an axial relationship with Ochre Court (Richard Morris Hunt, 1881), now the University's administration building. This slight adjustment also recasts it and the nearby buildings in the Catherine Lorillard Wolfe estate, Vinland, (1882, Peabody & Stearns, donated to Salve Regina in 1955) into a cohesive academic group. "We rotated the building on axis so it corresponds to the geometry of Ochre Court," Marani explains. "It also gives the chapel a bit more face as you approach along Ochre Court Avenue."

The stone-and-shingle exterior takes cues from the nearby hennery (as the name implies, a building where hens were kept) at the Vinland estate. "The hennery by Peabody & Stearns is a very playful building and we picked up on a few forms from it, such as the eyebrow dormer windows," Marani notes. "We also drew details from our own recreation center and from other historic buildings in the area. So the chapel is really of the place. That was a very important aspect of the design."

For the Rodgers Recreation Center, for example, the designers were able to change the scale of the building by bringing the roof down and using over-scaled components to make the building look smaller. Some of these ideas were carried over to the new chapel building.

Our Lady of Mercy Chapel offers three entrances. The main ceremonial entry into the narthex faces Ochre Point Avenue. The entrance porch opens onto a new landscaped lawn, which was made possible by the orientation of the building. A second campus-oriented entry is located on the opposite side of the narthex, facing the buildings of the Wolfe estate, Vinland.

The third entry is a ministry entrance located beneath the steeple on the campus side of the building closest to the administration building. This entry leads to a stair tower that provides access to the lower level and to the belfry and steeple. The lower level houses a large common room, offices and restrooms. A light well on the west side provides daylight to this level.

The main floor comprises the chapel, the narthex, a meditation room and circulation and service areas. The narthex leads to the 50x50-ft. chapel space, which seats 250 people. The interior is "very, very simple," Marani says. The vaulted ceiling in the chapel reaches 34 ft. in height and is punctuated on its east and west sides by large eyebrow windows to allow daylight into the chapel. Timber beams "articulate the space and add a level of sophistication," he adds, "and they emphasize the upward sweep of the vault." Windows on three sides – the two eyebrow dormers and an oversize oculus – bathe the chapel in balanced diffuse light.

The interior palette is of plaster and wood on the walls and bluestone flooring. Side aisles supplement the central aisle to provide circulation to all parts of the chapel. Stained-wood liturgical furniture in the chapel, including the horseshoe-curved pews, was supplied by Ratigan Schottler, Beatrice, NE. "There is no organ," Marani points out. "It is simply a worship space for the Salve Regina community, students, faculty, and visitors alike."

The 45-ft. tower – rising 10 ft. higher than the chapel roof – houses bells and mechanical equipment, and creates a visual landmark for the campus. It is topped with a metal cross supplied by UG Nasons, Middletown, RI. The same firm supplied the zinc-coated copper gutters and downspouts for the building.

One of the outstanding features of the building is the octagonal meditation room on the south side, embellished with five restored John LaFarge stained-glass windows that were originally installed in a chapel at the nearby Caldwell house (1890), now demolished. Other more secular LaFarge windows are located on the east façade of the chapel, where the choir gathers. These windows were purchased from a gallery in Newport, William Vareika Fine Arts, and restored by Serpentino Stained Glass of Needham, MA.

"The building is very low key, but there is a lot of detail," says Marani. For example, stained-mahogany arched exterior doors welcome worshippers and visitors into the building. Jutras Millwork of Scituate, RI, fabricated these doors as well as woodwork and millwork throughout. Special details include the eyebrow dormers, nautical-themed windows at the building's "bow" and "stern," and a shingled bowed roof over the ministry entrance. The Western red cedar shingles on the building's walls and roofs were manufactured in British Columbia by Watkins Sawmills Limited and installed by Newport-based Farrar & Associates, the general contractor. Kirwin Construction, also of Newport, served as construction manager.

The design process started in 2006 and the chapel was completed in 2010. Our Lady of Mercy Chapel is the first dedicated chapel building on the campus. Previously, a ballroom in Ochre Court had been repurposed as a chapel. "It really is a coming of age for the University," Marani notes, "because Salve Regina finally has a true place of worship within the campus." He adds that the building is considered non-denominational and is formally called the Spiritual Life Center. "Sister Therese Antone, who was president of Salve Regina University when we began our work and is now its chancellor, was a driving force in creating the new chapel, and the new president, Sister Jane Gerety, was also very supportive, ensuring the building's successful completion." The chapel was also made possible by a number of anonymous donors.

"Salve Regina is a wonderful steward of their buildings," Marani notes, "They know what treasures they have." TB



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