Traditional Building Portfolio




California Classicism

Project: Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, CA
Design Architect: Duncan G. Stroik Architect, LLC, South Bend, IN; Duncan Stroik, principal; Stefan Molina, design project architect; Tony Bajuyo, construction project architect
Architect of Record: Rasmussen & Associates, Ventura, CA

By Martha McDonald

A new 15,000-sq.ft. chapel with a dome and a bell tower reaching 135 ft. into the sky now seems to grow out of the landscape in the hills about an hour out of Los Angeles. It is the new centerpiece of the campus at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA. Designed by Duncan Stroik, the new Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel combines Early Christian, Renaissance and Spanish Mission styles. The $25-million project was dedicated in March 2009 after 3½ years of construction.

The cruciform-shaped stucco and limestone building is one of the largest new churches built in the Classical style in the U.S. in recent history. It follows another Stroik-designed new construction project, the 35,000 sq.ft. Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, WI, completed in 2008 (See Traditional Building, December, 2008, page 20). In addition to the Classical styling of the exterior, Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel also features Classical ornamentation on the interior including Corinthian columns flanking the nave, a marble inlaid floor leading to the altar, statuary and paintings.

The new chapel was designed to be the crown jewel and the heart of the campus for a college founded in 1971. Spearheaded by recently deceased Thomas Aquinas president Dr. Thomas E. Dillon, the chapel is the result of a 10-year effort that involved trips to Europe to study different architectural achievements and a concerted effort to complete a cohesively designed campus. In a 2003 issue of The Catholic World Report, Dillon was quoted as saying, "We had in our mind that our campus would be an ordered whole and that the chapel would be the most important building on the campus."

The current president of the college, Peter DeLuca, has been involved with the project from the beginning. He points out that the school was founded as a beacon for Catholicism and Classical education at a time when there was movement away from those values in this country. "The chapel stands at the head of the academic quadrangle to complete the campus," he says. "The Classical design goes with our Classical curriculum and there was a desire to tie the college into the southern California tradition and also to Rome."

Duncan Stroik, principal, Duncan G. Stroik, LLC, of South Bend, IN, has been quoted as saying that the goal of the design was "to be timeless, rather than of our time. The new chapel will be an alternative to the novelty and shock value of contemporary architecture in the news today. Rather than designing it to have maximum shock value...we have sought to design something for posterity. The chapel will be built to last hundreds of years and is designed to not go out of style."

"The client wanted a cruciform building, a dome over the crossing, columns and arches," says Stroik. "It sounded very traditional to them, but in the history of ecclesiastical architecture, that is not a combination you see often. Essentially they wanted an ancient basilica transformed into a cruciform shape with a dome added."

The exterior is notable for its Classical entryway, dome and bell tower, all of which draw their roots from history. Brunelleschi's churches built in Florence during the 15th century, for example, provided inspiration for the 32-ft-dia. (exterior dimension, interior is 27 ft.) dome that is 72 ft. to the oculus over the baldacchino, 89 ft. from the floor to the exterior cornice (exterior dimension is 103 ft. above grade). Prompted by Dr. Dillon, Stroik also looked to Californian architectural traditions when designing the chapel. The bell tower is modeled somewhat on that of St. Mary Magdalene Chapel in Camarillo, CA, while many other local churches also influenced the final design.

"Like Our Lady of Guadalupe, the client had a grand vision and a beautiful site and wanted high-style architecture," says Stroik. "They were thinking that it was a Spanish mission version of the Lawn at the University of Virginia, with the chapel replacing Jefferson's Rotunda. It was interesting to think about how a chapel fits into a campus. They had the arcade going around the main quadrangle, so we decided to let the arcade connect to the chapel by going through it."

The front façade, seen as a Porta Coeli (Gate of Heaven), features a triumphal archway flanked by fluted and spiral fluted Indiana limestone Ionic columns and molding. Niches on either side of the doors contain marble statues of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, signifying active and contemplative lives.

The pediment (approximately 4 ft. tall x 15 ft. wide) over the front façade frames the college's coat of arms held by two giant angels. Standing on top of the pediment is a free-standing approximately 8 ft.-tall marble statue of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. "She is approximately 65 ft. off the ground and is visible from everywhere on the campus," says DeLuca. "It was quite an engineering feat to mount this statue," he adds. Latin inscriptions also grace the front of the building. The Mary statue, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were sculpted in clay by Giancarlo Buratti and carved in carrera marble by Studio Cervietti in Pietrasanta, Italy.

The columns on the front of the building were custom carved by the artisans at Bybee Stone of Bloomington, IN. Stroik says they considered cast stone but decided to stay with the carved limestone. "The cost was competitive because it was a very custom job," he notes.

Bybee Stone supplied the Indiana limestone and was also responsible for carving the pediment featuring the college's coat of arms. "When we designed the pediment, we modified the college's coat of arms, giving it more depth and detail," says Stroik. "The college was happy with it, so they changed their coat of arms to match the pediment."

The three-tiered 135-ft. bell tower contains bells that are hand rung. Originally the bell tower was to be stucco with limestone detailing like the rest of the building, but there were concerns about the cost. After exploring other options and a visit to St. Ignatius in San Francisco where Stroik saw a100-year-old metal bell tower still in good shape, the college decided on a metal tower. They turned to Munns Manufacturing of Garland, UT, to create it. The tower was then painted to match the limestone and stucco.

"The tower is primarily aluminum, with a steel structure," explains Munns director of sales and marketing Tim Thompson. "We built it in our plant in Utah and then broke it down just enough to transport it to California. When we got to the site, we off-loaded and reconstructed it, hoisting the parts into place." He adds that this is typical of the replication work done by Munns, which also has a plant in Virginia. Munns workers handle all parts of the process – building the structure, transporting it (in this case it took 17 tractor-trailers) and reconstructing it onsite. "These structures are lightweight and virtually maintenance free," he adds, "and it is more economical to build it in our plant rather than onsite."

The classical experience continues as the visitor moves through the arcade to enter the chapel through 12-ft.-tall bronze entry doors (supplied by Louis Hoffmann Co., Menomonee Falls, WI). The doors are topped with a bas relief, "The Coronation of the Virgin Mary," one of the original pieces of artwork fabricated by EverGreene Architectural Arts (EAA) of New York City.

The nave is flanked on either side with seven arches, which are supported by 14-ft. tall marble Corinthian columns and an entablature supporting the ribbed vaulted ceiling. The inlaid marble floor leads the eye to the altar and baldacchino under the dramatic dome. The baldacchino features cast bronze Solomonic columns and a painted and gilded wood canopy with four angels standing at each corner. The sanctuary furnishings – tabernacle, baldacchino, altar and altar rail – were designed by Stroik and built by Talleres de Arte Granda of Madrid, Spain. Eppink of California, South Gate, CA, supplied the mahogany ambo.

Art for the chapel includes five murals (approximately 5 x 7-ft. each), as well as four circular pendentive murals of the evangelists (approximately 5 ft. in dia). All were painted by EverGreene artists. The 5x7-ft. murals were based on historic paintings: "The Annunciation with God the Father," by Jacopo Palma il Giovane (1548-1628); "The Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist," painted in 1698 by Carlo Maratta; "The Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas" by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660); "Teresa of Avila Receiving the Communion," painted in 1683 by LivioMehus; and "Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac," painted in 1636 by Rembrandt van Rijn.

EverGreene also created all of the plasterwork for the chapel, including the capitals, arches and entablature. "All of the decoration is marbleized to look like the marble columns," says Jeff Greene, president of EverGreene Architectural Arts. "There are not a lot of elements in the chapel, but they are all very finely wrought," he notes. "Nothing is ostentatious; it all fits and works together. We had a lot of conversations during the work on the chapel about why the Classical formula works to create a holy space."

In addition to the bas relief over the entry doors, EverGreene artists also sculpted and cast the approximately 4½-ft tall statue of "Our Lady Seat of Wisdom" and the two angels flanking her, for the interior. "This statue of Mary reflects a particular moment, of letting her child go," says Greene. "It is very moving. We paid a lot of attention to the details, the facial expression, and the depth of the drapes."

The EverGreene designer for the ornament detail was Eugene Nikitin and the lead sculptors were Penko Platikanov and Javlon Yarmuhamedov, along with about 10 others. Luis Angarita was the project manager and Nick Serafimov and Johnny Hilares were site foremen.

"The iconography for the chapel was fairly simple," says Stroik. "The college didn't want a lot of ornament, color or statuary. They wanted it in small doses and well done."

The marble work for the chapel was supplied by Savema, SPA, Italy, and installed by Cleveland Marble of Orange, CA. This included the columns, pilasters and the flooring. The columns on either side of the nave are one-piece construction and are made of Botticino marble and the bases are Apuano marble. They were quarried in 16-ft. blocks in Italy and transported to Pietrasanta, near Carrara – the center of the world's stone fabrication industry, notes Randy Fulton, project manager for Stegmann and Kastner, project management consultant for the college.

The general contractor for the project was HMH Construction of Ventura, CA. Fine Line Precast of Ventura, CA, supplied the precast details, including the mezzanine balustrade, exterior balustrade and pavilion door surrounds.

The chapel was designed to give the appearance that the columns were holding up the building, but that type of construction doesn't work in today's earthquake-concerned environment. "The columns had to be bored out in the center to accommodate the steel columns," says DeLuca. "The marble columns were then installed over the steel columns during construction, when only the lower walls were in place. They were lifted over the wall with a giant crane and lowered over the steel columns. Then large protective structures were built around them to protect them during the rest of the construction."

"Those are the only steel columns in the building," Stroik points out. "The building is primarily masonry construction." He adds that marble was selected for its coloring after careful consideration. "Originally the interior columns were going to be limestone, but Dr. Dillon did not think limestone was the right color for the interior. The marble has a warmer appearance. Above the columns, we had EverGreene make the capitals, entablature and arches in plaster that is faux painted to match the Apuano marble bases. This is actually very traditional in the U.S. and Europe," he adds, "and there were generous savings."

The columns for the baldacchino were also a consideration. Although the college originally wanted bronze columns, it was thought that they would be too expensive. Fulton did some studies and found that Arte Grande could produce the bronze Solomonic columns at a price similar to marble, so they went ahead with the bronze.

The baldacchino also features four angels, one on each corner (two with bunches of grapes and two with sheaves of wheat), with a painted and gilded wood canopy.

Another firm involved in the project was Boston Valley Terra Cotta; it supplied the custom tile for the exterior of the umbrella dome; the red clay tile for the rest of the building was supplied by MCA of Corona, CA. The dome is divided into 12 sections with 12 round oculi, signifying the 12 apostles.

Other clerestory windows throughout the chapel provide most of the lighting. Other than that, the chapel has subtle uplighting and a few spots. The lighting consultant was George Sexton Associates of Washington, DC. There are no chandeliers and no windows to look out of.

Heating and cooling are also subtle. "Because of the insulation, very little air conditioning is needed," says DeLuca. Heating and cooling is achieved via hot-water radiant heating under the floor that is controlled by a sophisticated computer system. "It is simple and quiet," says Stroik.

Wood pews (supplied by New Holland Church Furniture, New Holland, PA, in the transept and nave seat 375 (450 including the loft) at the new chapel at Thomas Aquinas College; with additional folding chairs, the chapel can seat 700. Dedicated in March of this year, the chapel quickly became the center of the college. "It is almost always in use," says DeLuca, "either for services or for contemplation." TB

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