Creative Evolution of the design for St edward's chapel / by Ethan Anthony

The creative evolution of the additions to St. Edward’s Chapel at the Casady School

The beginning of the additions to St. Edward’s Chapel was simple. The Donor who wishes to this day to remain anonymous, I will call him George, contacted me to inquire whether the firm that designed the chapel in 1944 still had the original drawings. I researched the firm archives and found that we did in fact have them and a meeting was arranged for me to visit with the informal committee George had assembled to work on the project he had in mind for the chapel.

Casady School, is a K-12 Episcopal Prep School founded by Bishop Casady of Oklahoma with 36 students in 1947. The chapel of St. Edward the Confessor was given by Frank Johnson Hightower as a memorial to his parents both of whom died tragically during his youth. George attended Casady during the time Hightower gave the chapel participated in a trip with Hightower and a group of Senior boys to England where the hand carved paneling that graces the interior of the chancel was purchased, disassembled and transported to Oklahoma where it was reassembled and installed in the chapel.

Hightower’s original vision for the chapel included a west wing that was to house a sacristy and vestry and offices for the chaplain and assistant chaplain. There was insufficient funding to complete his entire vision so a temporary wooden shed was built to house the sacristy and the mechanical equipment of the chapel. Years passed and a large modern stone addition was added behind the chapel that connected to the wooden shed and contained conference and bathroom facilities and offices which housed the clergy and other faculty including counseling and guidance functions. The addition named the Harper wing for its donor was of contemporary design, flat-roofed, semi-circular in plan clad in a stone that was meant to look related to the chapel but that does not.

George wanted to replace the temporary shed with a permanent addition that would look like part of the church and that would accommodate the program envisioned by Hightower. We began work on programming for a new sacristy and vestry with then Chaplain Reverend John Marlin and with the administration and other faculty members. The program evolved through our discussions to include a fully developed sacristy and a vestry for the student choir which averaged 20 members as well as two offices and a handicap accessible lavatory which the chapel did not have at the time.

In addition discussion of the actual use of the chapel revealed that it was heavily used by the music department as a concert venue and that the heaviest use was for the annual baccalaureate celebration in May. The school had grown very significantly from its founding to 865 students in 2010. The community had not fit in the chapel for years and the administration hoped to add some additional seating for baccalaureate. There was talk initially of using the original design sketch for the addition we found in our archive but the program discussions revealed a far larger program would be necessary and that it could not be accommodated entirely in a west wing due to the existence of the Harper Wing.

The program demanded that we think outside the limits of the initial program and I decided an East wing would be required to accommodate the two larger program requirements of a Green Room for musicians to warm up before their turn and the additional seating for Baccalaureate and special events such as concerts. To these functions were added two practice rooms for the music department and a handicap accessible bathroom and a wheelchair lift to provide wheelchair access to the altar platform. We had recently completed our renovations to the Chapel at Phillips Exeter academy, and a new chapel at the Canterbury School in Greensboro North Carolina where we also fit up both chapel to double as a worship space and as the principal recital space for the music program. This seemed to fit the program at Casady well.

The other major determinant of the form of the additions was my observation of the traffic flow of the students through the existing chapel. I was able to spend some time during several visits to the school watching the students arrive for morning chapel and leaving for class, also for choir practice and for other events that took place at the chapel during the day. In discussions of the program with George he indicated often the importance of the chapel to him as the spiritual center of the campus which now sprawls over 80 acres and 29 buildings occupying several  square blocks along Britton Avenue in the Village a northern suburb of Oklahoma City. The campus had grown to be very large and the only sense of a center was provided by a five acre lake at the center. Though everyone knew the lake was there it was not possible to easily visualize the place of the chapel and the lake from other parts of the campus, especially when the trees had leaves.

The need was for a vertical element that could be seen from the remainder of the campus, a tower on the chapel of some sort would be just the thing. They had an electronic bell (a speaker actually) that sounded the hours but there was nowhere a visible building element. The solution to that sense of center was the addition of a tower to the church but how to do it? It would have been possible to add a tower to the west door but that would have changed the appearance of the original building so much it would effectively disappear and I knew that would not be acceptable to George or the school community because it would erase the memory of Bishop Casady and Frank Hightower’s contribution to the school. The solution was to add a bell tower to one of the wings leaving the original building undisturbed but contributing to and enhancing it.

The second major determinant was the pathways taken by students to and from chapel each morning. I wanted to find a way to incorporate the path into the building thus encouraging students to enter the building before actually entering the chapel to make the passage to and from chapel a more extended ritual passage that included a progression from profane to sacred space. This passage also had to include a wheelchair accessible ramp at the west end to make the sanctuary accessible from the parking lot and due to the lack of a narthex space it was necessary to transition from grade to the nave floor level on the east. The means to resolve all of the access and pathway difficulties was to add a cloister element along the south side of the chapel. This was also conceived initially as a green element because it would provide passive solar heating to the building. Accordingly the scheme included a south cloister that extended across both wings and included a ramp that rose from the parking lot 24” to the nave floor level.

The existing building was also carefully evaluated as part of the effort and it was found that the building needed significant work including improvements to the heating and electrical systems and a new roof. Once the program and schematic were completed the project was dormant for six years during the financial crisis and while additional funds were sought. Finally George restarted the project in 2009 and after waiting years had to complete both Design Development and Construction Documents in about half the usual time. When we finalized the design I realized that we had neglected to solve on element of the design and that was the face the building would present to lake. This was important because all of the major buildings on the lake had an entrance that faced the lake while the chapel faced Britton Blvd and the main ceremonial entrance gate. Still the chapel needed a face on the lake and I designed a large perpendicular Gothic window based loosely on St. George’s at Windsor. I chose this example because it is one of my favorite in Britain and I felt symbolized the Anglican orientation to their British heritage.

During the six year hiatus both the Bishop and Chaplain at the school had changed. The previous Bishop had not played a role in the chapel design but the new Bishop of Oklahoma, Dr. Edward J. Konieczny was an enthusiastic participant in design review meetings playing a large role in the design of the interior of the added wings. He chose the liturgical subject matter of the windows and influenced many other matters large and small throughout the building. Another major contributor to the design was Katie McClendon, Ms McClendon is a board member at Casady and her husband Aubrey is an alum. Katie is well acquainted with Gothic architecture and lived closely with it during her undergraduate years at Duke. She weighed in on many matters throughout the design and construction. Her largest contribution to the design was to strongly advocate for the cloister to be open instead of closed as I had originally conceived it. Her reasoning was that it would be a stronger design and more clearly expressed on the exterior if it was not glazed in. She also felt it need not be closed because of Oklahoma’s mild winters.

The loss of the passive solar function was negated as a determinant when the school moved to put all of the buildings around the lake on a geothermal heating and cooling system powered by the lake water. We did not seek LEED certification for the chapel due to the fact that the school was seeking it for the math building that was being constructed at the same time and had found that the LEED process added significant cost.

Nathan Sheldon, assistant head of School at Casady was my closest contact throughout the design development and construction of the addition. Nathan was always a great contributor to the design and construction. He was a fair-minded and thoughtful administrator ever conscious of his responsibility to the Board yet always willing to advocate for the best interests of the building and the school. What he did not know about the complexities of building our semi-medieval way he worked hard to learn and mastered quickly. He was a tireless advocate and remains a good friend.

Throughout the schematic design process I worked closely with George and Nancy Records. All of the initial design ideas were presented to them and passed their careful review. Their contributions were many and their love for the project and the school and their hometown were most important.

As with all our projects we began with a thorough and careful review of the program needs of the client. The program was translated into a design solution that grew organically from the program needs without undue influence from any preconceived notion or idea. The client trusted that we would respect the original building and not burden them with self-assertive ideas that called attention to themselves at the expense of the original. Along the way through a ten year long process involving dozens of individuals, all who weighed in with ideas and who were heard and included the design grew and changed to accommodate the best ideas we could find. The result is a building that fit in seamlessly, solved the clients program and spiritual needs and is a satisfying and beloved addition to the most important spiritual building on the campus. Today the bell tower rises above the trees where its roof and the carillon that resides there can be seen and heard across the entire campus. Baccalaureate and musical performances as well as an expanded choir are all accommodated and the building feels as though it has been there in its entirety from the beginning of the school.