If Chris and I are going to go visit a holy/religious site outside of Rochester, New York, we will very often come up with a list of other, secular sites to see and do as well. However, when it came time to consider what we should see in Auburn, New York, we were originally a bit hard pressed. We have known of the Willard Memorial Chapel for several months now and we always agreed that it would be a site worth seeing for purposes of ‘exploring the burned over district,’ but it was hard for us to justify making the drive with nothing else to do. Fortunately, we eventually found that Auburn, New York is not only home to the state’s second oldest prison that makes every single license plate in the State of New York, but is also where Harriet Tubman and William H. Seward (former Governor of New York, Secretary of State to Abraham Lincoln and dude who bought Alaska) lived and are currently buried, and has reportedly been featured on National Geographic due to being home to a large murder of crows. So after figuring out when we could go, Chris and I finally made the journey to Auburn, NY and began our day of adventure at the Willard Memorial Chapel.
The absolute coolest thing worth mentioning about this Chapel is that it is the only complete and unaltered totally Louis Comfort Tiffany designed religious interior known to exist in the world! Yes, the entire world, and let us tell you, it is simply amazing. Willard Memorial Chapel is more formally known as the Willard Memorial Chapel-Welch Memorial Building and is the last remaining structure of the original Auburn Theological Seminary, which was established in 1818. According to a pamphlet written by the Community Preservation Committee of Auburn, NY, “The seminary had its origins in the great revivals of religion that swept through the new settlements early in the 19th century and the resulting demand for ministers of the gospel.” Anybody who has been reading our blog knows this is referring to the Second Great Awakening and how Upstate, NY became the “burned over district.”
Now I also feel it is important for people to consider that two years before this in 1816, Auburn Prison was created and was founded as a model for its contemporary ideas about treating prisoners, which became known as the ‘Auburn System.’ Something also worth mentioning is that prisons were originally known as penitentiaries and the root word of this is penance, which literally means “repentance of sin” which is what inmates in penitentiaries were originally supposed to do. While I suppose according to some, God is the only one who can truly forgive sin, priests are God’s vessels here on Earth and often find themselves hearing confession of sinners. While our tour guide at the Willard Memorial Chapel did not make this connection between the formation of the Auburn Prison in 1816 and the Auburn Theological Seminary in 1818, it is something I have read in other places and it does appear to make sense if you think about it.
Chris and I had called prior to arriving to the Chapel, but when we arrived, we realized we were the only ones there. We walked in the main entrance and started to look around at the informational posters about the Chapel hanging on the walls. We heard some voices coming from another room and they must have heard ours, because eventually an employee came out to greet us and introduced herself as Marcia. Chris and I then introduced ourselves and shared what our purpose for being there was and in the interest of self-disclosure we told Marcia about the blog.
Marcia was incredibly friendly, kind and knowledgeable about not only the Chapel, but the original Auburn Theological Seminary, which is where she started her tour. The seminary admitted its first students in 1821 and at its peak; the seminary consisted of over 10 acres of land, including several different buildings, such as a five story dormitory, a library with a museum, and a printing press and additionally prepared thousands of pastors and missionaries located around the world. The Willard Chapel itself was built and eventually established by 1894, and was financed by Caroline and Georgianna Willard, in memory of their parents Jane Frances Case Willard and Dr. Sylvester Willard, both notable philanthropists and advocates for the down-trodden. The Willard sisters chose the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company to design the chapel’s interior and while Tiffany is known to have designed other church interiors, the Willard Chapel is the only one known to exist today, making it an incredible piece of history. Marcia told us that literally everything in the chapel is Tiffany, which includes 14 original stained glass nave windows, a nine paneled stained glass rose window, a three paneled stained glass window of “Christ Sustaining Peter on the Water,” a glass mosaic floor, 9 glass chandeliers, oak furniture richly embellished with gold leaf stenciling, a glass jeweled pulpit and a very large gilded plaster wall mosaic. The only thing not original Tiffany is the current cushions on the pews.
By 1939, the Auburn Theological Seminary found it necessary to relocate to Manhattan, New York (where they are still located) due to low enrollment and ultimately closed the seminary. Buildings on the campus started to be demolished, but the Willard Chapel remained vacant until 1957 when it was purchased by The Seventh Day Adventist Church. The Adventists did some of their own remodeling of the place and we were told by Marcia that the interior walls of the chapel were painted over, as well as the facade organ pipes. We would never have known this without her telling us this, but as we looked closer at the organ’s facade pipes, we could see a faint outline of the original stenciling. Marcia explained to us that the Adventists had felt that the chapel needed to be a bit less loud and toned down. The Adventists remained in and maintained the chapel until 1988 when they eventually moved out. The Willard Chapel again sat vacant but by 1990, the Community Preservation Committee of Auburn, New York, won their “Save the Chapel” campaign, and by 2005 the chapel (and the adjoining Welch Building) were designated National Historic Landmarks and has been a museum ever since.
Marcia would not allow is inside the chapel until she turned the lights on and when we walked in, we could see why since you really need lighting to truly appreciate all of the glass. Marcia also brought with her a flashlight because there were certain glass pieces that she wanted to specifically show us with the light directly on it. We proceeded to basically walk from the back of the chapel, through the nave, to the front where the altar is. In this chapel, the organ is actually in the front and while we have seen this before, it is usually the exception since most organs seem to be in the back of churches. Marcia shared with us that the organ is a 19th century tracker organ and was specifically designed for the chapel. As we looked at the organ closer, we noticed there were doors in the front paneling over the organ and Marcia simply opened one of the doors and told us to peak our heads in. Chris on the other hand had a different idea and simply asked Marcia if he could walk right in. Now mind you, the space he was asking to walk into is very small and confined. It did seem that Marcia was a bit surprised at this question, but Chris and I have now come to expect that through our tours to be allowed in to see the stuff usual visitors cannot, so we do not really hesitate to ask. While Marcia did say yes, she seemed a bit hesitant to do so. Chris went in and a few minutes later came back out, but made it completely worth it to Marcia because he brought with him pictures of the actual pipes in the organ that Marcia herself had never actually been able to see! Marcia, Chris and I continued to walk through the chapel and Marcia pointed out very specific glass pieces which accentuated Tiffany’s different styles of glass making. At this point in our journeys, Chris and I have also seen many Tiffany stained glass windows and have become quite knowledgeable on the topic ourselves, so we were able to share our own experiences with Tiffany stained glass with Marcia as well. One thing that Tiffany is specifically known for is his use of his drapery effects with his glass, and the Willard Chapel does not disappoint in showing this technique; however, Chris and I were also exposed to Tiffany’s technique of ‘hammered glass.’
Marcia eventually noticed that other people were waiting in the Welch Building and since we had really completed our tour already, she said her goodbyes to us but explained that we could hang out in the chapel as long as we wanted and take pictures. I was especially attracted to the gilded plaster wall mosaic on the back wall and spent a bit of time staring at it. In one of the pamphlets I took from the chapel, it says that this mosaic is a memorial by the Willard sisters to their parents and “personifies the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity.” I thought this was a pretty cool thing and is definitely something you do not see every day in most churches, but for that matter, most churches are not Tiffany designed churches! We definitely feel that the Willard Memorial Chapel is a small gem in Auburn, New York and is something very worth making the trip to see.