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Rising from the Ashes

Seminary reaches compromise to retain ruins of historic chapel.

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Proposed site layout.

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Design for memorial garden.

When God appears to Moses in the Book of Exodus, a bush is described to be on fire yet not consumed by flames. The same could be said for Immanuel Chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary.

Back in October 2010, a fire destroyed the wooden roof of a historic chapel at the seminary originally constructed in 1881. Although the fire left a majority of the solid masonry walls and tower intact, leaders at the seminary want to demolish most of the remaining structure to create what they call a “Prayer Garden.” A new 20,000-square-foot chapel will be constructed to replace the historic structure.

“Two years ago, a lot of the seminary community was devastated by this fire,” said Duncan Blair, a land-use attorney who serves as chancellor of the seminary. “And now we have come forward with what I think will be an award-winning memorial garden.”

THE STORY OF THE chapel’s rise from the ashes was not without controversy. When the seminary proposed its initial plan to demolish most of the chapel and construct a new one, many advocates of historic preservation balked. Then the seminary revised the plan to demolish most of the ruins and construct a prayer garden. Once again, many resisted the idea.

“One awful thing happened to this building in the fire, and another one is about to happen if we remove 70 percent of what remains and it becomes a collection of random walls that are a prayer garden,” said Linda Serabian, a member of Immanuel Church on the Hill, in April 2011. “Take some of those pieces and incorporate them into a new building with new architecture to a building that will tell the story of what’s happened on this spot.”

When an earlier concept plan was presented to the Old Town Board of Architectural Review, Chairman Tom Hulfish made a personal appeal to Blair to revise the plan to retain more of the ruins. The board created a special subcommittee to find a solution, and a new concept plan was created that incorporated more of the ruins into the design. It eventually passed the board with a unanimous vote, and nobody spoke against the proposal when it went before the Planning Commission last week.

“It was a reasonable compromise,” said Chip Carlin, member of the Old Town Board of Architectural Review. “They successfully integated signifcant portions of the old chapel to be retain and integrated into the site plan for the new chapel.”

CONSTRUCTION BEGAN on the Immanuel Chapel in 1879, although it was not consecrated until 1881. Along with a core group of key buildings, the chapel represented a mid-19th century building campaign that formed the heart of campus. It stood alongside other imposing Episcopal structures, including Aspinwall Hall, Bohlen Hall, Meade Hall and Francis Scott Key Hall. The chapel was listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

“The seminary’s core of early buildings stands as a tribute to the talents of their architects and as a document of the taste of the Episcopal Church at the time of their erection in the 19th century,” according to the National Register nomination.

Designed by Baltimore architect Charles Cassell, the historic chapel included a rosewood chancel rail that was given to the seminary by an African bishop. The Board of Architectural Review staff report describes the style of the building as “Ruskinian Gothic architecture as built on the collegiate scale.” Its steeply pitched roof, large lancet windows and two-story entry tower are considered to be a reaction against the Neoclassical style and the effects of industrialization.

“The use of the Gothic Revival style at the Seminary represented not just the application of a popular architectural style but the intentional selection of a style imbued with a deep sense of religiosity, most appropriate for a recently founded theological seminary,” according to the staff report.

ALTHOUGH THE CHAPEL is not in a historically protected area, it is one of eight buildings at the Seminary listed on the city’s 100-year-old building list. But the Board of Architectural Review did not have authority to require restoration of the chapel. At a minimum, city staff suggested, the iconic tower should be salvaged — if, for no other reason, than the cost of demolishing it may exceed the cost of stabilizing it.

“The walls seem to be in good condition, said John Hynan of the Historic Alexandria Foundation in favor of restoring the historic chapel. “What is needed is essentially a new roof.”

A report from Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, the seminary’s insurance adjuster, noted that the chapel “sustained extensive damage” and suggested that “all of the roofs, gutters, windows and interior finishes should be removed and replaced.” Ultimately, the adjuster’s report feared an imminent collapse and suggested razing the structure. But the Alexandria Code Enforcement engineers inspected the structure and found “no fire damage at the exterior brick wall” and that the “existing brick walls are sound.”

“The tower wall is neither cracked nor bowed,” city engineers concluded, “except there are some loose bricks hanging on the infill wall.”

MANY BUILDINGS in Alexandria have been burned and rebuilt using exterior walls, including much of the 100 block of Prince Street. Now leaders at the Virginia Episcopal Seminary are ready to create a new chapel for the 21st century and incorporate as much of the old chapel as possible into the design.

“We support this project because we believe this building will be an asset to the neighborhood as well as fulfilling the mission of the seminary and our own as an Episcopal Church,” wrote members of the Immanuel Church on the Hill vestry in a letter of support.