Silhouetted against the sky, the Cadet Chapel rises above the Plain as though carved from the very hillside to which it clings. Standing as it does •some three hundred feet above the Hudson River, the Chapel dominates the entire West Point scene.
Completed in 1910, the Cadet Chapel was designed to replace an earlier building erected in 1837. With the passage of the years, the size of the Corps of Cadets had increased until not only the Chapel but also the barracks, the academic building, and many other structures were entirely inadequate.
The situation was brought to official attention in the annual report of the Board of Visitors in 1901 which recommended a complete "tearing down and a new building up" of the Academy. The observance of the Centennial of the establishment of the Military Academy in 1902 brought thousands of visitors to West Point and resulted in the publication of scores of articles in newspapers and magazines. Consequently, the nation as a whole became more fully acquainted with the Academy than ever before. Congress, as a result, authorized an appropriation for the renovation of the Military Academy.
Two officers were primarily responsible for this building program: Colonel A. L. Mills, Superintendent of the Military Academy from 1898 to 1906, and Colonel C. W. Larned, Professor of Drawing from 1876 to 1911.
One of the primary problems which faced these two men was the selection of the style of architecture to be used in the rebuilding. The older buildings at West Point, with the exception of the old Chapel, were of military Gothic design, a style which emphasized the character of the institution by castellated towers and battlements. The old Chapel, however, utilized the so‑called "classic style" of the 1830's. To add to this confusion, the new academic building, erected in 1895, was of modified Gothic design which attempted to blend the Gothic and the Classic. Moreover, Cullum Memorial Hall and the West Point Army Mess, built in 1898 and 1902 respectively, were of a truer Classic style. To resolve the problem p10 of architectural design once and for all and to obtain the best possible plan for rebuilding the Military Academy, Mills and Larned decided to seek a solution by sponsoring a design competition.
The leading architectural firms in the country were invited to participate in this contest. The judges for the competition, equally as distinguished as the participants, were Lieutenant General J. M. Schofield, Colonel A. L. Mills, George B. Post, Walter Cook, and Cass Gilbert.
Much public interest was aroused by the competition, which soon became known as the "battle of the styles". Finally, in 1903, the jury named as winner the firm of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson, who had presented a plan embodying the Gothic style.
As a result of this selection, the Cadet Chapel, the Administration Building, the East Academic Building, the North Barracks, and the Riding Hall were designed in a modern adaptation of the Gothic style of architecture and erected in the years from 1903 to 1914.
The original prospectus for the competition had suggested sites for the various buildings. In the prospectus, the location recommended for the new Chapel was Trophy Point, just north of the present flag pole. However, Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson urged that the Chapel be located at its present site. The folio, which they submitted in the competition, stated:
"We have placed the Chapel on the commanding spur of the hill just west of the Cadet Barracks. We have chosen this location for several reasons: first, in order to remove the Chapel from the immediate vicinity of the Academic Buildings; second, to give it a position where its tower would lift impressively above the other structures, which, in view of the rough nature of the land, with its picturesque possibilities, are arranged on a plain rather unfortunate for architectural effect; third, to give it a position convenient of access from Officers' Quarters and Hotel as well as from Cadet Barracks. We carefully considered its location as indicated by Colonel Larned, on 'Trophy Point', but dismissed this for the reason that it seemed to give the building too great prominence for a military institution, as being inadequate from an architectural standpoint, and as destroying a more or less treasured site. For the same reason, we dismissed the idea of placing the Chapel where the Hotel now stands (Ed. note: the Hotel then stood on Trophy Point east of the present location of the statue of George Washington), and also because we believe this latter location could be used more appropriately."
The recommendation of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson was adopted; and the Chapel was erected on the hill overlooking the Plain. Blending as it does with its natural surroundings, the Chapel impresses even the casual p11 visitor to West Point.
Approaching the Chapel on foot from the vicinity of the Cadet Barracks, the visitor walks up a steeply winding path which follows the slope of the hill in a northeasterly direction. At different points along the path, glimpses of the Chapel may be seen through the trees until the observer passes along the northern slope. Here, the building may be seen more clearly. It seems almost as if the Chapel had grown from the ground itself.
The appearance of the Chapel seems to vary with the season. In spring, its austere gray walls seem to soften and blend into the newly-greened foliage. In the heat of summer, its huge mass seems to offer coolness. In the fall, the neutral gray of its stone stands forth in startling contrast to the vivid coloring of the trees about it, while in winter its granite walls seem to reflect the cold and dreary grayness of the surrounding hills.
It is at Christmas time, however, that the Chapel is at its best. Flood-lighted, it seems to rest in space, projected as a picture against the jetblack backdrop of the night sky. Visible for many miles, the Chapel, gleaming as though made of translucent alabaster, has come to be a symbol of the Christmas season to the residents of the Hudson valley.
Forty‑two years have mellowed the Cadet Chapel. Ivy has climbed the rough granite of its walls; wind and rain have worn the newness of its stones. Today the Chapel stands as a tribute to the far‑sighted men who fostered, designed and built it, an outstanding example of modern Gothic art.
Minstrel from the Clerestory Stringcourse
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The Cadet Chapel
(G. S. Pappas)
History of West Point
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Page updated: 3 Aug 12