Historic Cone Chapel renovation fosters inclusive campus community

by Paul McKean '11,

  • view of renovated cone chapel
  • view of renovated cone chapel

Years in the making, a summer remodel opens up the chapel for flexible and safe gatherings.

It has hosted weddings, memorial services, acappella concerts and passionate campus discussions. It has served the Willamette and Salem community through times of joy and sorrow. And now, more than 30 years after its dedication, a renovation of Willamette University’s historic Cone Chapel will open up the space for new uses.

Chapel visitors will notice the familiar beauty of the space with some new features. Pews have been replaced with movable furniture that can be easily arranged in rows or into smaller, more intimate discussion groups. The chapel’s breathtaking stained glass windows have been equipped with shades to promote the use of a new projection screen that can be raised and lowered in front of the Bishop Family Organ. And new carpeting has improved the acoustics of the room for musical performances and concerts.

According to University Chaplain Karen Wood, discussions about renovating the chapel began around 2003 and have long been a priority for the Chaplain’s Office. Declining student and faculty use of the chapel and a desire to accommodate more flexible uses of the space suggested a need to reimagine the layout of the chapel.

“The chapel was aesthetically gorgeous,” says Wood, “and, functionally less useful than it might be.”

Flexible and safe gatherings

The renovation plans focused on meeting the needs of an ever-changing campus community. “As we became a more multi-religious community, we were looking for a space where lots of religious groups could worship,” Wood says.

With the arrival of Claremont School of Theology, the timing was perfect for a campus space to accommodate a variety of religious practices and multi-faith teaching.

As Willamette began to plan for reopening amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the university looked for creative ways to use campus spaces as classrooms while protecting the safety and health of students and faculty. The remodeled chapel now allows for socially distanced classes.

Honoring a legacy

Wood says the renovation prioritized maintaining the aesthetic beauty of the space and honoring the generosity and intentions of the donors whose names were inscribed on plaques lining the pews.

Donors and living family members of deceased donors were offered the opportunity to take home a pew and a plaque. Some of the remaining pews have been relocated across campus, such as in the lobby of Smith Auditorium and the reception area of Claremont School of Theology’s Salem office.

As a lasting tribute, a plaque will be installed in the vestibule of Cone Chapel celebrating the generosity of donors who were recognized during the 1989 renovations.

This fall, the chapel is serving as a classroom for a variety of disciplines, and the new space is already getting positive reviews from the community.

“One faculty member told me, ‘I get to teach in the best space on campus,’” Wood says. “I’m excited to see all the wonderful things that could happen in this new, reimagined chapel.”

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