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William Preston Few, who began his academic career as an English professor in 1896 and climbed the ladder to its highest rung, must have thought he had died and gone to heaven.  The cigarette king, James Buchanan Duke, had decided to give his tiny college forty million dollars.  The year was 1924.  Trinity College would soon be Duke University.

One April day in 1925, the two went for a walk in hopes of finding a suitable site for the new construction that would be possible with such an endowment.  Ambling along a plateau full of pines, gums, hickories and oaks, “Buck” Duke paused and said:  “Here’s where it ought to be.”  He had selected the site for the chapel, a gothic building that would dominate all the surrounding buildings.

Five years in the planning and two years in construction, the ecumenical Christian chapel would be the last of the original buildings to be completed on the West campus.  The cornerstone was laid on October 22, 1930.  It was first used at the commencement ceremony of 1932.  Inspired by English gothic, the designer selected for the project was Julian Abele, America’s first African-American architect of note.

The Dukes were Methodists, but Buck envisioned the chapel as the center of religion for all the students who would be attending the growing school.  He told his friend Few that “the edifice would be bound to have a profound influence on the spiritual life of the young men and women who come here.”  The “great towering church” was one of the last great collegiate gothic projects in this country.  It was completed at a cost of 2.3 million dollars.

The stats are impressive.  At 210 feet (64 meters) the Duke Chapel is still one of the tallest buildings in Durham country. It seats 1,800 people, has a fifty-bell carillon and three pipe organs. It is mainly constructed of local stone quarried from Hillsborough, not far from Durham.  Following the typical Duke fashion of vertical integration that he pioneered in the tobacco business, Duke bought the quarry in order to insure a good supply of stone at the right price.

Like many churches, the Chapel is a cruciform, with a nave that measures 291 feet (89m) 63 feet wide (19m) and 73 feet (22m) high.  There are 77 stained-glass windows designed and constructed from over a million pieces of glass, much of it imported from England, France and Belgium.  There are at least eight hundred figures represented in scenes from the Old and New Testaments.  Check out the rest of my photos by clicking any picture running alongside this text, or do your own search of Duke Memorial Chapel on Flickr.

We were fortunate enough to hear one of the organs during our visit.  William Preston Few and James Buchanan Duke are buried in the crypt, together with Washington Duke and Buck’s brother, Benjamin.  Two other Presidents of the University are interred there as well.  Terry Sanford, who was the sixth President of Duke, a US Senator and Governor of North Carolina, may be the most illustrious citizen of the pantheon.

It is a beautiful church, a stunning memorial to the Duke family and a testament of their concern for the religious education of the students.  It is too bad that it was built on the backs of farmers who worked tobacco fields and the millions of young men and women who took up smoking and ended their lives with nicotine-stained fingers.

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