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White Elephants on Campus: The Decline of the University Chapel in America, 1920-1960

Margaret M. Grubiak
Published by University of Notre Dame Press in 2014

Reviewed by Nathan Alleman, Educational Administration, Baylor University

Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”1 The late Prime Minister’s words came to mind as I read Margaret Grubiak’s intriguing book, White Elephants on Campus: The Decline of the University Chapel in America, 1920-1960. Although she is obviously concerned with architectural form, Grubiak also uses the physical presence of the chapel at private elite universities as an entry point and lens to examine the recurring question of religion’s role in higher education and society.

For Grubiak, chapels (and other religiously-themed campus buildings of the day) are not merely emblematic of the attempts institutional leaders made to negotiate a new and yet meaningful role for religion on campus; they were the means as well. In this sense, however, the “white elephant” descriptor is not simply a term of historical analysis: taken from a cartoon in the 1927 Princeton Tiger student newspaper, a child stands before Princeton’s newly completed neo-gothic chapel and inquires of her mother, “Mummy, is that thing a white elephant?”2 Significantly, at the moment of its construction Princeton University Chapel was contested territory, interpreted variously as a reflection of the institution’s commitment to Christianity’s fundamental role in higher learning or, as the cartoon suggests, an inexplicable anomaly at an institution molting the tired assumptions and restrictions of religion in favor of the freedom and discovery of the scientific age.

Returning to Churchill’s assertion, Grubiak’s text explores and analyzes both elements of his claim as she expands her examination over successive chapters from chapels to campus planning and then to non-chapel buildings with religious forms. With regard to the shape of chapel buildings, Grubiak well utilizes her disciplinary knowledge of architecture and history. Her case examples, drawn primarily from the elite private institutions in the northeastern United States, are flush with detailed descriptions of key architectural features, helpfully accompanied by a selection of historical and contemporary drawings, schematics, and photographs. Grubiak does not simply offer a detailed recital of architectural elements, but rather she seizes upon the fine detail of structures, analyzing their functional and symbolic importance for a variety of stakeholders.

Grubiak carefully explains how the meaning and importance of chapel as an institution and a physical form was changing. As an institution, compulsory chapel was rapidly losing sway and enrollment at universities such as Princeton and Harvard had long since surpassed the seating capacity of the existing chapels, eliminating the option of a mandatory worship gathering. Furthermore, accounts of student apathy and petitions to end attendance requirements indicate that the issues with the ritual went deeper than physical capacity. In short, chapel (the service and the structure) was uninspiring. The aspirations for chapel spaces thus required the buildings to engage student interest as well as provide for their physical presence. Toward this end, architects and administrators often fixated on the neo-gothic style as the most visually impressive and awe-inspiring form. The irony of this choice, not lost on commentators of the day, was that at institutions such as Princeton, such a structure ran counter to the worship forms and indeed, core theological perspectives associated with its Presbyterian tradition. Significantly, the Reformed tradition’s emphasis on intellectual transformation was ignored in favor of a form thought to be more universally inspiring. Creating an emotional reaction through the scale and visual interest of chapel buildings isolated the role of Christianity to the affective domain, in contrast to the cognitive domain of the classroom and library.

Grubiak further considers the implications of the chapel’s physical location on campus. If, as Harvard President Abbot Lawrence Lowell and others asserted, Christianity is to be a central concern of the university, then its corresponding building must be centrally located as well. This intertwining of spatial location and values posture resulted in an escalation of rhetoric as well as campus planning. At Harvard, the recently constructed Widener Library, a column-ringed behemoth on the southern end of campus, was said by campus planners to require a structure of parallel scope and functional gravity to balance the distribution of buildings and to reflect symbolically the balance of the value of knowledge with the value of religion expressed in the chapel. Consequently, a third responsibility of campus chapels was to symbolize the significance of Christianity on campus through a scale and position reflective of its importance. Failure to do so, proponents claimed, would project its devaluation.

The second aspect of Churchill’s claim (“our buildings shape us”) carries the implication that individuals are unwilling or unable to check the influence of the built environment. In the case of chapel planners and proponents, what Churchill suggests was precisely what they desired: the founders, funders, and designers of chapels at Harvard, Princeton, and other elite private institutions sought and indeed promoted the potential indirect effects of built structures. Grubiak traces the fast-flowing streams of rhetoric that turned the wheel of chapel planning at several campuses, though not in every instance did it result in chapel construction. The fits and starts of the master plan at Johns Hopkins, which Grubiak argues originally intended a centrally located chapel, demonstrates the confluence of logistics and values that further displaced the chapel as a mainstay of campus planning.

In her latter chapters, Grubiak delves into the rich ambiguity of architectural forms that mirrored religious themes and imagery, including the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning and Yale’s cathedral-like Sterling Memorial Library. In these, the variety of intended and perceived meanings assigned to chapel-esque structures further splinters. As Grubiak adroitly notes:

That the [Yale] library’s iconography could be read on a spectrum from sincere ecclesiastical emulation to a parody of religious past points exactly to this transformative moment for religion on the campus in the early twentieth century. (94)

Herein lays the rub of the times that seemed to be lost on enthusiastic promoters: the confidence that particular physical forms would result in a uniform and predictable interpretation and response by students, faculty, administrators, and the general public, was no longer assured. Thus removed from religious purpose, ideological pluralism largely reduced the message of religious imagery to a conveyance of history and gravity, assigning the qualities of the divine (permanence, ultimate value) to the intellectual, and by extension, the institutional.

Overall, a strength of this text is the contribution it makes to a larger conversation about how much physical location matters. On the college campus, power has three dimensions: length, width, and height. The built environment speaks of institutional priorities, in terms of how resources are used and what sorts of activities are allotted spaces. For instance, Grubiak concludes her book by examining the contemporary Wren Cross controversy at the College of William and Mary. In the setting of a historic Anglican chapel on this now public campus, the removal of a small ornamental cross to promote interfaith use of the space and comply with constitutional non-establishment requirements became a call to arms for those who interpreted the action as one more attempt to marginalize or exclude Christianity from higher education. Grubiak’s use of this example powerfully highlights the intertwining of symbol and function and the thorny issue of acceptable and unacceptable places for organized religion in America. Indeed, an extension of this theme can be seen in the controversial policies at Vanderbilt University, where faith-based groups that deny non-believers officer status have lost access to on-campus structures.

My major critique is not damning, but it does relate to the breadth of her thesis. Grubiak’s selection of a small set of elite private northeastern institutions is legitimate, but similar to her heavy use of presidential accounts, it comes at a cost. This sample choice, while defensible on the grounds of a regional case study or studies, implicitly suggests that these institutions are somehow representative of what was happening nationally, if not through chapel building, then played out in other spatial and conceptual forms. Grubiak acknowledges that denominational colleges were building chapels (as per their mission) and public institutions were not (as per theirs). Yet I found that this focus on “elites” creates a persistent unacknowledged and unresolved tension throughout the text as to whether this story is a case study of a segment of higher education, or whether it is a study of higher education broadly that utilizes a sub-set of institutions as exemplars.

Overall, Grubiak’s work does not take on the scope or scale of George Marsden, James Burtchaell, Julie Reuben, and others who have laid the groundwork for the secularization story,3 yet her contribution fills in key details about how this transformation came to pass. Almost as important, lessons from this book are not just about the loss of the centrality of Christianity through secularization and the odd chapel artifact that remains, but the loss of Christianity’s assumed access to the leverage of space in the marketplace of ideas.

Cite this article
Nathan F. Alleman, “White Elephants on Campus: The Decline of the University Chapel in America, 1920-1960”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:3 , 311-314


  1. 393 House of Commons Debate, 5, s. 403 (October 28, 1943).
  2. As cited in Margaret Grubiak, White Elephants on Campus: The Decline of the University Chapel in America, 1920-1960 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014). Princeton Tiger 37.7 (15 December 1927): 34, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
  3. James T. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998); George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Nathan F. Alleman

Baylor University
Nathan F. Alleman is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Baylor University.