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Duke University Chapel

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1930–1935, Horace Trumbauer; Julian Abele, lead designer. 401 Chapel Dr.
  • (Photograph by Erik Floor)

Duke University Chapel forms the heart of the West Campus, symbolizing in stone the university’s motto, Eruditio et Religio or “Knowledge and Religion.” Duke University has its origins in the Methodist-founded Trinity College, then located in Randolph County. Tobacco industrialists Washington Duke and Julian S. Carr donated funds and lands, respectively, to move the college to Durham. In honor of his father, James B. Duke contributed a $40 million endowment to the college in 1924; it was subsequently renamed Duke University. The original grounds became known as the East Campus, and the university planned for expansion about a mile to the west, with a chapel at its center.

As a relatively young university in the early twentieth century, Duke University borrowed from the authority of medieval collegiate architecture, influenced heavily by the Gothic buildings and quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge universities. William Preston Few, Duke’s first president, collected inspiration from twenty prestigious examples of university architecture on a whirlwind two-week tour. The university hired the Philadelphia architectural firm of Horace Trumbauer for the new campus, although Julian Abele, the first African American architecture graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, served as chief designer. Abele studied in Paris as well, and Beaux-Arts planning principles are evident in his West Campus design, even though the buildings themselves are Gothic in style. The original West Campus is formed by two main axes, with the northeast-southwest lateral axis longer than the northwest-southeast approach axis, which features a long, straight drive arriving opposite Duke Chapel, which is set back further from the crossing to exaggerate the perspective. The Chapel’s prominent location was in line with James B. Duke’s vision for the West Campus, one in which “a great towering church” dominates “all of the surrounding buildings, because such an edifice would be bound to have a profound influence on the spiritual life of the young men and women who come here.” The cornerstone was laid on October 22, 1930 and the chapel was consecrated in 1935.

The Collegiate Gothic chapel has a Latin cross plan and can seat roughly 1,800 people. The chapel’s 210-foot-tall entrance tower was modeled after the Harry Bell Tower of Canterbury Cathedral, along with bifurcated elements inspired by Princeton’s Holder Hall. Containing a carillon of fifty bells, the tower provides an imposing axial conclusion to the grand university entrance. The interplay of social, economic, and religious authority is forefront in its decorative program: the richly carved entrance portal is surrounded by limestone reliefs of both heroes of the faith and of the Southern states. Early American Methodist leaders Thomas Coke, Francis Asbury, and George Whitefield grace the front facade, while Girolamo Savonarola, Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, Sidney Lanier, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas Jefferson flank the entrance on either side. The figure of John Wesley, father of the Methodist movement, rests in the central niche above the doors. Immortalizing these specific figures stressed the importance of Duke’s faith as well as his dedication to his southern home.

Hillsborough “blue” stone was the predominant construction material. The overall effect is that of gray tones but the stone actually comes in twenty different shades ranging from slate blue to vibrant ochre. Inside, the soaring nave is supported by ribbed vaults. The construction of intricate pointed-arch lierne vaulting, which spans the 73-foot-tall ceiling, was supervised by master mason Donald Macadie and W.S. Lee Engineering Corp. of Charlotte, North Carolina. Guastavino tiles cover much of the interior, which also contains Indiana limestone trim.

The interior features an arcade of pointed arches separating the nave and side aisles, a five-part trefoil lancet triforium, and a massive stained glass clerestory. Seventy-seven stained glass windows, installed by G. Owen Bonawit, Inc., bathe the 291-foot-long body of the church in vivid color. Within these windows, S. Charles Jaeckle and craftsman Hugh Doherty used a method of exaggerated features to bring a sense dynamism to over 800 figures. The chancel around the altar can seat 150 and is adorned with elaborate woodcarvings of saints and scenes from the passions, executed by Irving and Casson of the A.H. Davenport Company.

To construct the chapel and the other Gothic-style buildings, new technologies such as steam-powered shovels and cranes were used to speed construction, and a railroad spur was built through West Campus to deliver stone from the quarry that James B. Duke had purchased, twelve miles away near Hillsborough. In the chapel, steel trusses were used instead of large timbers in the roof, which reduced its weight and thus the need for large, complex flying buttresses. Instead, Abele utilized lower-profile diagonal and angle buttressing.

Following James B. Duke’s death in 1925, a memorial was built between the chancel and the south transept of the building. Completed in 1928, the Memorial Chapel contains the tombs of the benefactors of the university: Benjamin N. Duke, James B. Duke, and their father Washington Duke. Their Carrara marble sarcophagi, carved by sculptor Charles Keck, are lit with the silvery radiance of the monochromatic grisaille windows. A stone staircase runs between the Memorial Chapel and the choir leading to the crypt. Also interred here are important North Carolinians as well as past university officials.

Duke University Chapel houses three exceptional pipe organs of varying styles. The Kathleen McClendon Organ by the Aeolian Organ Company, installed in 1932, flanks the chancel; it features a post-romantic sound using 6,900 pipes. The Benjamin N. Duke Memorial Organ by Dirk A. Flentrop, towering 40 feet above the narthex and containing 5,033 pipes, was installed in 1976. Finally, the 960-pipe Brombaugh organ was installed in 1997 and is reminiscent of Italian Renaissance instruments in both pitch and tone.

In 2015–2016, Duke Chapel underwent a $19.2 million renovation that included a new roof, cleaning of the stained glass windows, interior surface refinishing, mortar repair, and a new cooling system. The chapel is open to the public and holds regular Sunday services.


Bishir, Catherine W. North Carolina Architecture. Portable edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Bishir, Catherine W., and Michael T. Southern. A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Bryan, John M. Duke University: An Architectural Tour. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000.

Cavanaugh, William J., et al. Architectural Acoustics: Principles and Practice. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2009.

Dunlap, David W. “Duke By Design: How the University Came to Look The Way It Does.” Clipping, 1998. University Archives, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Glymph, Minnie G. Duke Chapel Illuminated. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

Hardee, Ruth. “Eruditio et Religio.” The Chronicle, April 23, 1976.

King, William E. “Abele, Julian Francis (1881-1950).” North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary. North Carolina State University Libraries, 2014. Accessed February 12, 2019.

Williams, Shane. “Duke University.” An Online Encyclopedia. Accessed February, 12, 2019.

Writing Credits

Erik C. Floor
Nicholas Serrano
Kristen Schaffer
David Hill



  • 1930

  • 2015


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Erik C. Floor, Nicholas Serrano, "Duke University Chapel", [Durham, North Carolina], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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