The architectural-award winning Bigelow Chapel is a delicate composition of floating planes of glass, frosted clerestory windows, precast stone walls and translucent curved wood panels that cast a warm glow and create a tranquil and inspirational environment. Skylights provide suffused light throughout the interior. Forty-two foot high twin towers contain five Deagan chimes made in the 1920s and 1930s. A meditation garden, stone-paved patio and grass courtyard adjoin the chapel.
The outer west wall of the chapel is made of clear, glass panes and “fins” of glass that travel across the roof and down the side to the chapel floor. The fins are a modern expression of a buttress, though non-weight bearing. These fins echo the existing vertical lines of the Spencer Library and classroom buildings and help the different architectural styles relate to one another. Each fin is made of two panes of 1/2″ thick, low-iron glass with laminate between the panes; low-iron glass was chosen because it does not appear as green in color as regular glass. The white look of the fins relates the old and new architecture.
The stone used for the building, both inside and outside, is precast concrete in the style of Italian travertine stone. More than 4,000 pieces of precast stone in 39 different patterns and three different colors were created especially for Bigelow Chapel. Each stone weighs approximately 72 pounds. A cantilevered stone overhang (north end) balances the height of the twin towers.
Along the west wall of the chapel and above are curving panels of wood veneer and specially fabricated acrylic. The wood grain is quilted maple, found in the Bigleaf Maple of the Pacific Northwest. A single tree provided all of the veneer. The tree was sent to Germany to be pealed into veneer panels 1/32″ inch thick, then placed between two pieces of acrylic to form a 1/8″ panel. It took 12 months to master the process to form these panels.
The interior cross, carved into the stonework of the south wall, is unique because of the use of negative space. This cross, like the exterior cross, which is clad in stainless steel and affixed to the outer twin tower, is a statement of the building. The architect wanted the symbols to be a part of the architecture and not something applied to the architecture.
The Laura Shannon Meditation Garden was designed as a place for quiet reflection throughout the year. The garden’s focal point is the Thornless Hawthorn tree, which blooms in late spring with clusters of small white flowers. After the flowers die, 1″ sized red fruit grows, staying on the tree until fall. A deciduous tree, the Thornless Hawthorn’s leaves are a glossy, dark green in summer and turn a bright yellow-orange by fall. The stone in the garden is Virginia slate with flowering sedum and wild thyme between the stones.
Architect Joan Soranno wanted the Bigelow Chapel to relate to the other seminary campus buildings, which she achieved by emphasizing the vertical lines of the library and classroom buildings through the use of glass on the west side of the chapel building. In the sanctuary, Soranno wanted light, comfort and warmth. She accomplished this through the use of natural and diffused light in glass and wood and through the curving wood of the west wall, which has reminded some of being cocooned, of being in the body of Christ or of being in a ship. Soranno also felt it important that the chapel relate to nature, therefore the building was not placed up high, above all else. Also, the south entrance is 6-7′ above the center green space, thus moving to the sanctuary leads one down to ground level, connecting the person with nature and the Creator.
The Bigelow Chapel was the first religious project for Joan Soranno and John Cook, who went on to design such award-winning buildings as the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the Lakewood Garden Mausoleum in Minneapolis, where they married in 2009.
Designers and Vendors
Architectural firm: HGA (Hammel, Green and Abrahamson), Minneapolis
Architects: Joan Soranno and John Cook
Construction firm: M. A. Mortenson, Minneapolis
Stonework: Artstone, New Ulm
Millwork: Wilkie Sanderson, Sauk Rapids
Lighting, Schuler Shook, Minneapolis
Laura Shannon Meditation Garden design: Shane Coen, Coen + Partners, Minneapolis
- The American Institute of Architects Honor Awards, Architecture, 2006 (the profession’s highest recognition of works in architecture, interior architecture and urban design)
- Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), Honor Award, Excellence in Campus Architecture, 2006
- Custom Woodworking Business’ Annual Design Portfolio Award, Grand Award, 2005-2006
- American Consulting Engineers Council of Minnesota, Grand Award, 2005
- American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), National Recognition Award, 2005
- The Cast Stone Institute, Honor Award, 2005
- Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture (IFRAA) Faith and Form Awards, Religious Art and Architecture, Honor Award, 2005
- Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (PCI), Design Award, 2005
- Veneer Technologies Incorporated, Craftsman’s Challenge, Grand Award, 2005
- The Wood Design Award, Honor Award, 2005
- Minnesota Society of the American Institute of Architects Honor Award, 2004
Private architectural tours of Bigelow Chapel are available to interested groups Monday through Friday from 9:00 AM–5:00 PM. We encourage both seminary and outside groups to take advantage of this service. If you would like to set up a guided tour, or if you have a question about the tours, please contact Sheryl Schwyhart, 651.255.6159.