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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a section of
The Cadet Chapel

George S. Pappas

(2nd edition)
West Point, N. Y., 1958

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p13  The Chapel Architecture

[image ALT: A drawing of a large and somewhat austere Gothic church with an abbreviated transept and a massive square tower over the crossing; seen from the altar end, which is a rectangular wall almost completely covered by a single ogival traceried window. It is the Cadet Chapel of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.]

The Cadet Chapel and the Rectory
from the South

The realism innate in mediaeval architects urged them toward the Gothic style. It was this realism, fostering a desire for light and space, which resulted in the use of vaulting to free the clerestory for the admission of light that indicated unlimited space. This same desire for light and space brought the development of ribbed vaulting which made the whole structure into an armature of stone. The final result was the Gothic cathedral with its high vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows, towers, and buttresses — the cathedral which has been called the only truly intuitive example of Christian art.

Bertram G. Goodhue, the architect of the Cadet Chapel, made every effort to make the building authentic. Recognizing the beauty and symbolic significance of the Gothic style, Goodhue incorporated in the Chapel many architectural features found only in the old Gothic cathedrals and chapels of England. At the same time, while maintaining this authenticity, Goodhue made certain modifications to the pure Gothic style in order to adapt the Chapel to its location.

The authenticity may be found in such details as the hagioscope or lepers' squint found in the east wall of the Sanctuary or the representation of the ecclesiastical dungeon on the lower level of the Chapel. Squints were included in the old cathedrals to enable lepers to view the services. The ecclesiastical dungeons were used when the Church possessed temporal as well as spiritual power over its communicants.

Goodhue's modification of the true Gothic style may be seen at a glance. The battlements and castellated towers, for example, emphasize the military aspect of the Academy. The solid arcade walls below the clerestory contrast with the general Gothic tendency for great windows. It is these solid walls which give the impression that the Chapel was carved from the hillside itself.

Two small towers mark the north face of the Chapel. The intersection of the transepts and the nave is crowned with a massive square tower similar to the square towers found in many English cathedrals. Goodhue  p14 used the square tower rather than the spire because the delicate traceries of the latter would not have harmonized with the over‑all simplicity of the Cadet Chapel.

The adherence to the finer features of true Gothic style and the modifications made by Goodhue to fit the Chapel to its location at West Point have made the building an outstanding example of modern church art. Just as the mediaeval Gothic cathedral is a material representation of the search for realism of the time, so is the Cadet Chapel a realistic interpretation of religion's role at West Point.

 p15  The Chapel Exterior

As is true of most of the Gothic cathedrals and churches, the Cadet Chapel is cruciform in shape. The Chapel has the long and narrow nave, the transepts, and the chancel typical of the English Gothic style. The transepts, however, are somewhat narrower and more representative of the French Gothic school.

Standing three hundred feet above the Hudson River, the Chapel is built of granite from the West Point quarry, a stone which blends well with the native stone of the surrounding hillside. The care with which the stone was chosen is another reason for the illusion, at times, that the Chapel rises from the hillside. This is particularly true during the Christmas season when the Chapel and its surroundings are lighted by flood-lights.

The longitudinal axis of the Chapel runs almost true north and south. Consequently, the sanctuary end of the Chapel, the symbolic "eastern" end, is at the south. Goodhue placed the Chapel in this position in order to make the best use of its location and the natural surroundings.

Approaching the Chapel from the northwest, the visitor follows a gracefully curved road edged with a granite wall which gradually blends into the porch wall adjoining the north steps of the Chapel. These steps lead to the Galilee porch, or terrace, one of the authentic features of the Chapel added by Goodhue to conform to the characteristics of the English cathedral. The porch in the mediaeval cathedral was used as a chapel for penitents. Some authorities maintain that the term was derived from Latin word "galeria," meaning porch or long porticus. Others believe that the words found in Mark xvi:7, "He goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him," suggest a meeting place and that the name was therefore given to the porch.

This porch provides a most advantageous point from which to view West Point and the surrounding countryside. Spread out below it are the buildings of the post proper and the Plain, the parade ground of the Corps of Cadets. Directly below the Chapel is Washington Hall, the cadet  p16 dining hall, a massive building laid out in the shape of a huge "W". To the east, its tower rising almost to the same level as the Chapel, is the Administration Building which was also designed by Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson. The cadet barracks, the hospital, the academic buildings, and the gymnasium, as well as the homes of the Superintendent and the Commandant of Cadets, may be seen from this vantage point. On a clear day, Newburgh, fifteen miles to the north, may be seen in the distance. The purple of the Hudson highlands, the clear blue of the sky, the deeper blue of the river — all combine to form a scene of incomparable beauty.

The north face of the Chapel is plain and severe when compared with the symbolic face of most English cathedrals. This simplicity of ornamentation was one of the modifications Goodhue made to adapt the Chapel to the Academy. This simplicity is especially evident in the entrance way. Most of the Gothic cathedrals have entrance arches deeply recessed and ornamentally carved. Here, the shallow, recessed arch, formed by the north window and the door, is almost devoid of embellishments. Moreover, the Chapel arch differs somewhat from the typical entrance way of the English or French cathedral in that twin tiered buttresses, springing from either side of the apex of the arch, divide the window frame and the entrance way into three parts. The hood molding above the doors reflects the military flavor of the architecture by its battlements.

The two small towers, or turrets, at the north end of the Chapel further emphasize Goodhue's military Gothic style. Octagonal in shape, the two towers rise only slightly above the parapets on either side. The castellated effect, seldom found in ecclesiastical structures, is typical of a mediaeval  p17 castle or fortress tower. Goodhue blended these typically military architectural features with the graceful windows, the buttresses, and the ornamentation of the Gothic cathedral to form a pattern suitable for the Chapel.

The east and the west faces indicate other features which make the Chapel unusual from an architectural standpoint. The arcade walls, the lower portion of the east and west walls, are almost solid with only a few small windows. This effect contrasts vividly with the large clerestory windows immediately above. In the usual Gothic church, both the arcade and clerestory contained many windows. The earlier buildings had smaller windows; the later cathedrals had very large windows filling almost the entire area between the buttresses.

Each side of the Nave is divided into seven bays which are defined by the seven clerestory windows separated by buttresses. The buttresses are simple in design, built in stages with weathered offsets and with no ornamentation. The Chapel was designed without flying buttresses because the Nave is comparatively low and has no double aisles or chevet. The buttresses are pierced to form the triforium aisles. The arcade roof, divided into sections by these buttresses, has a steep slope.

The large clerestory windows, whose stone tracery is easily visible from the outside, lighten the over‑all effect of the massive walls. There are no triforium windows, although the Gothic cathedral generally had windows in the arcade, the triforium, and the clerestory walls. The stringcourse above the clerestory windows embodies a series of beauti­fully carved bosses. The parapets are battlemented, another one of Goodhue's innovations.

[image ALT: A drawing of a horizontal stone sculpture in high relief: a reclining man, blowing a valveless trumpet. Depicting a musician, it is a carving on the clerestory stringcourse of the Cadet Chapel of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.]

Musician from the Clerestory Stringcourse

The transepts, although shallow in comparison with those of many  p18 Gothic churches, stand out sharply from the Nave walls. Each transept has two large windows on the clerestory level. The buttresses here appear to be more massive than the buttresses of the Nave walls. However, this is an illusion caused by the arcade roof which breaks the solid line of the Nave buttresses. At the base of the west transept is a side entrance to the Chapel. This entrance, another of Goodhue's authentic touches, is symbolic of the lance wound Christ received on the cross. The entrance is surmounted by a small turret which blends the base of the transept gently into the Nave wall.

The south face of the Chapel is comparatively plain. With the exception of the intricate stone traceries of the Sanctuary Window, the wall is almost without ornamentation. The two massive buttresses, also in stages with offsets, are capped by very plain pinnacles. A simple plaque above the window is the only other decoration.

At the southeast corner of the Chapel are the Chaplain's quarters. A concealed passage provides access directly to the Chapel from the rectory. It is always a difficult problem for an architect to design and place the dependencies of a church in such a manner as to blend them with the main building, especially when the building is of considerable extent and height. Goodhue designed the Chaplain's quarters in such a way that they are an integral part of the Chapel without in any way detracting from the over‑all design of the building.

The central tower is another typical feature of the English Gothic cathedral as compared with the two western towers generally found in the French cathedral. The square tower rising above the intersection of  p19 the Nave and the transepts and the two small towers at the north end of the Chapel give it an appearance very similar to that of Chester cathedral. The design of the tower is simple, in keeping with the architecture of the entire building. Two arched openings on each face of the tower open into the belfry. The parapets of the tower are battlemented to conform with the battlements of the Nave walls. The only tower embellishments are the carved figures of the stringcourse and the simple pinnacles on each face.

[image ALT: A drawing of a horizontal stone sculpture in high relief: a walking man, bowed rather low to fit in the space allotted, beating a snare drum. Depicting a military drummer, it is a carving on the tower stringcourse of the Cadet Chapel of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.]

Drummer from the Tower Stringcourse

Steps at the north end of the Chapel lead to the outer entrance to the lower level on the east side of the Chapel. The steps pass the massive iron grillwork of the ecclesiastical dungeon door. The steps also lead to a path which provides access to the barracks area on the level of the Plain.

The Chapel is two hundred feet long on the interior, thirty-three feet wide across the Nave, and seventy‑two feet wide across the transepts. The transepts themselves are thirty‑two feet wide. The tower rises one hundred and forty-five feet above the ground and sixty‑one feet above the level of the roof.

Although the Cadet Chapel is not an example of pure Gothic architecture, it does embody many of the characteristic features of the English Gothic cathedral. The modifications and variations made by Bertram Goodhue have fitted the Chapel to its location in a superb manner, while at the same time retaining the ecclesiastical symbolism of the cathedral. Its authentic features are seldom found in similar buildings in this country. Goodhue's design of the Chapel has made it an outstanding contribution to American architecture.


[image ALT: A drawing of part of a large building with Gothic features; two people, dwarfed by it, are seen approaching a Tudor-arched doorway. It is the East entrance of the Cadet Chapel of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.]

The East Entrance of the Chapel

 p21  The Chapel Interior

From the Galilee porch, seven steps lead to three massive doors which open into the narthex. In ancient Christian churches, constructed after Christianity emerged from hiding, it was customary to have an outside court, or narthex, where the unbaptized, who were preparing for admission to member­ship, were permitted to stand and hear the first portion of the service of Holy Communion. Modifications through the centuries changed this court into an outer lobby in the Gothic cathedrals. The narthex of the Cadet Chapel is a small and narrow vestibule. At both ends are the spiral stairways of the two north towers. A center door and two aisle doors, one step above the level of the narthex floor, lead into the Nave.

The adornments of the Chapel, as well as the structure itself, make an impression upon the visitor who enters the Nave for the first time. The color­ful battle flags hanging above the arcade arches, the memorial window, the altar, and the reredos stand out in striking detail. Careful scrutiny, moreover, reveals the many fine architectural features so carefully executed by Goodhue.

The Nave walls may be divided into three architectural groupings: the arcade, which is marked by the series of arches; the triforium, the space between the sloping roof over the aisle and the aisle vaulting; and the clerestory, the upper segment of the wall which extends above the sloping aisle roof. Seven arches of the arcade range divide each side of the Nave into bays, each bay containing a single stained glass window. The arcade range consists of segmented arches unadorned and unmolded. In this respect, the Chapel differs from many of the English cathedrals where the arcade consists of ornate and pointed arches enriched with carved moldings. Goodhue balanced the simplicity of design and ornamentation of the outside of the Cadet Chapel with the plainness of the interior.

The arcade arches, wide in comparison to their height, rest on piers rather than on columns. These piers are unusual since they were designed to blend with flat segmental arches of the aisles. The Nave side of each pier is surrounded by attached fluted shafts formed to resemble columns.  p22 These shafts rise from plain bases and end in capitals of extreme simplicity. The shafts bear a marked resemblance to the pier shafts in Westminster Abbey added by Edward III about 1350.

The triforium passage is very low, so low that a tall man must stoop to avoid hitting the arches which pierce the buttresses supporting the wall above. The triforium passage in each bay is cut by four lancet-shaped openings capped with ogees, arches made up of convex and concave curves. These arches are arranged in pairs, each pair separated by an unfilled niche. The triforium has no window openings. This same condition is found in many old cathedrals. Consequently, the triforium is often called the "blind story."

Each bay of the Nave contains a large clerestory window. The stained glass panels of these windows are the gifts of the various graduating classes of the Military Academy. The decorative stone trace of the clerestory windows, and the windows themselves, are among the ornamental features of the Chapel.

The fluted shafts which rise from the arcade piers support the vaulted ceiling of the Nave. The rib and panel vaulting, which is of very simple design, rises fifty-five feet above the floor. The vaulting is four-part, with stone ribs and tile filling. The tile filling ranges, in color, from the darkest  p23 sienna to the lightest ocre. Sunlight filtering through the multi-colored windows often produces a most unusual effect when reflected from this tiling.

The floor of the Nave is composed of reddish-brown tile. Pews of very simple pattern fill the entire space from the doors to the crossing of the transepts. Additional pews are located in the transepts, both on the ground level and in the galleries. The seating capacity of the Chapel is 1500 people, including the choir.​a

Narrower than the transepts of the typical English cathedral, the Chapel transepts are divided into two bays. Each bay contains a two‑panel, stained glass window in the arcade level and a large window in the gallery level. The shafts, marking the intersection of the transepts and the Nave, and the intersection of the transepts and the Chancel, are capped with beauti­fully carved corbels representing the Four Evangelists. The shafts supporting the arches in the transept are carved to represent virtues, four being found in each of the upper transepts.

A simple stone parapet, or railing, separates the Chancel from the Nave. The pulpit and the lectern stand outside this railing. Immediately inside the Chancel railing, on the left side facing the altar, is the organ console, one of the largest in the world. Three rows of choir pews line either side  p24 of the center aisle. Behind the pews is a single row of choir stalls whose partitions are carved to correspond to the simple capitals of the pier shafts supporting the vaulted ceiling.

Choir screens rise behind the stalls. The screens fill the two arches on either side of the choir with their intricately carved woodwork and transform the side aisles into small galleries. The gallery to the right contains the font. The spaces above these two galleries contain many of the organ pipes. These are hidden from view by finely carved screens. Before the screens were installed, the upper galleries were filled with two huge American flags.

The floor of the choir is composed of a large stone slab in three sections. The slab, which weighs three tons, conceals the entrance to the crypt on the lower level. Three steps lead from the choir to the transverse aisle before the Sanctuary, which is separated from the choir by a plain wooden railing.

The Sanctuary walls are made of wood paneling. The panels on either side the altar bear symbolically carved shields along their upper edges. Except for these shields and the intricate tracery along the upper edge, the paneling is plain. The apse, or "eastern," end of the Chapel is square and contains the stained glass memorial window presented by the Association of Graduates. Directly below the center panels of the window is the carved reredos whose top rises to the bottom level of the window. The altar is carved of a single block of marble.

Three clergy stalls with carved arm rests are located against the right wall. Above these are windows filled with plain monotone glass. Similar windows are located in the left wall. On the wall at the left of the altar, above the paneling, is the hagioscope, or lepers' squint. The squint, one of Goodhue's authentic touches, opens into the rectory although, in the Gothic cathedral, the squint was designed to permit lepers on the outside of the building to view the altar. The panels below the squint contain a concealed door which leads to the vestry.

Authenticity and simplicity are the keys to Bertram Goodhue's design of the Cadet Chapel. His authentic references include the ecclesiastical dungeon, the Galilee porch, and the lepers' squint. To the thousands of cadets who have worshipped here and to the countless visitors, the beauty and the dignity of Goodhue's Gothic Chapel are an integral part of the West Point scene.

 p25  The Lower Level

From an architectural standpoint, the lower level of the Cadet Chapel is of great interest, primarily because of two authentic Gothic features: the crypt and the ecclesiastical dungeon. The basement, however, also contains the Sunday School and workshops.

Many visitors, who have climbed the hill from the cadet barracks area to the Chapel, have wondered what purpose was served by the massive iron-grilled door below the Galilee porch. For many years, cadets laughed at the story of the parent who threatened to withdraw his son from the Academy because he thought the iron door led to a dungeon used for recalcitrant cadets. True or not, the cadet legend had some foundation although that basis was the use of the ecclesiastical dungeons of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages and not in the Cadet Chapel.

[image ALT: A drawing of the base of a large austere building with Gothic features; only a forbidding-looking and very wide Tudor-arched doorway breaks the windowless structure. It is the Galilee porch and the ecclesiastical dungeon of the Cadet Chapel of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.]

The Galilee Porch
and the Ecclesiastical Dungeon

Many of the mediaeval cathedrals contained dungeons which were actually used as prisons at the time when the church exercised secular as well as spiritual power over its communicants. Bertram Goodhue, in his desire to make the Chapel as authentically Gothic as possible, added the ecclesiastical dungeon to his plan. The massive door, however, sets off a small space which may be termed a token-dungeon only.

A portion of the lower level is devoted to the Sunday School. In the largest room a small chapel has been established which is most attractive because of the diminutive size of its furnishings. Small chairs painted in many pastel shades lend a gay touch not found elsewhere in the Chapel. Classrooms are situated near this chapel area. Here, on Sunday mornings, the cadet teachers, under the supervision of the Chaplain, instruct children of post personnel.

The eastern end of the lower level contains the simple but beauti­ful crypt which Goodhue designed for use also as a chapel. Recently, this small chapel was designated "St. Martin's Chapel," in honor of the militant St. Martin of Tours. It is used for Sunday Communion services and other services involving only a small group of people.

Entrance to St. Martin's Chapel is made through a low, narrow-arched  p26 passage which passes beneath steps leading from the chapel itself to the tri‑partite stone in the Chancel floor above. On the south wall, directly below the altar in the Sanctuary of the main Chapel, is a small and simple altar, three steps above the floor level. In keeping with its original design as chapel and crypt, niches for the honored dead are situated along the east and west walls. These burial areas are now concealed by drapes. The chapel is about forty feet square.

Two massive stone pillars are centered in St. Martin's Chapel. From these and from stone piers along the walls spring the semi-circular ribs of the vaulted ceiling. The vaulting is massive for it supports the masonry floor of the Sanctuary above. Despite its massiveness, the curved vaulting has a gracefulness which belies its supporting role.

The two central pillars are about five feet in diameter. The capitals of the pillars are intricately decorated to illustrate the symbolism of death and the resurrection. The artistic skill of both the architect and the sculptor is nowhere else more evident than here where extreme care was taken to avoid the introduction of any symbolism which might be construed as controversial in character or sectarian in its suggestiveness.

It is unfortunate that the lower level of the Chapel is not open to visitors. The Sunday School with its brightly colored furniture and St. Martin's Chapel with its simple decor create a different impression from the solemn dignity of the Chapel above.

[image ALT: A drawing of an openwork panel in wood or stone composed of a framed Latin cross on three decreasing steps, with a depiction of a broken hourglass and a broken downward-pointing sword to the viewer's left and right respectively. It is a panel in the door to the crypt of the Cadet Chapel of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.]

Panel of the Crypt Door

Thayer's Note:

a When the Cadet Chapel was built, the authorized strength of the Corps was 481. In 1916, it was increased to 1,332; and in 1935, to 1,960, passing the building's seating capacity. The authorized strength of the Corps of Cadets is currently over 4,000.

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Page updated: 3 Aug 12