Knowles Memorial Chapel: Hamilton Holt’s “Gift” to Rollins College

By Dr. Jack C. Lane ’08H

Alexander W. Weddell Professor Emeritus of American History and College Historian

Author’s Note: When I interviewed at several colleges and universities after graduate school, I saw no evidence of religious structures, so I was surprised when I came for an interview at Rollins to discover that its most impressive building was a chapel.  Upon taking the job, I had another eye-opener. I was asked a question on the college’s  information form about my “Church Preference?” (I wrote: “Red Brick.”) I later attended a Sunday service at the chapel (with a congregation composed of a handful of mostly Winter Park citizens), and I was even more puzzled to witness an obvious Protestant service in an equally obvious Catholic-like sanctuary. I was further perplexed when I later learned the college was founded by Congregationalists whose churches, for liturgical reasons, were bereft of any ostentation and ornamentation. How did all this come about? Why did Rollins possess a large chapel that was largely ignored by the college community and at odds with its own history? This essay is my attempt to answer those questions. ~ Jack C. Lane

Postcard of Knowles Memorial Chapel

In ancient Southeast Asia, a monarch’s gift of a sacred white elephant was considered a blessing because it enhanced the recipient’s prestige, but also a curse because the sacred elephant, which could only be admired, was a costly burden. Thus, a “white elephant” is considered a possession which cannot be disposed of but whose cost is  disproportionate to its usefulness.

Positioned at the center of the Rollins College campus in Winter Park, Florida, is one of state’s most impressive architectural treasures: Knowles Memorial Chapel. Designed by Ralph Adams Cram, America’s foremost collegiate ecclesiastical architect, dedicated in 1932 during the depths of the Great Depression, Knowles is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Knowles Chapel is also a campus landmark, one that is often used to represent Rollins College in photos and postcards. Presumably, this ecclesiastical structure is intended as one of the sources of the college’s identity. Yet, paradoxically, today the structure is also the college’s slightest used and least occupied building, apparently struggling to deliver on the function for which it was intended. Within this paradox lies an interesting and revealing tale, a story not only of the origin and the building of Knowles Chapel but also of the rise and decline of religion as an essential component of a Rollins liberal education.

Founded in 1885 by a group of pious Congregationalists, from the beginning, the Christian (Protestant) religion was given a central role in a Rollins education. The original charter stated unambiguously the college’s mission: “The object [of Rollins College], which shall never be changed, shall be the Christian education of youth and to that end to provide students with the best educational facilities possible and to throw about them those Christian influences, which will be adopted to restrain them from evil and prepare them for a virtuous, happy and useful life.” In 1885 “Christian education” meant a course of study designed to build character and provide students with a moral civic purpose.  A local newspaper editor, writing about the opening of Rollins, observed: “The true purpose of a liberal education is not to prepare students for a profession but to enlarge the mind and character,” providing students “with a mind to understand difficult things, able to apprehend finest things, a character simple, pure and strong—these are the results of a liberal education. It puts the youth on a high plane of thinking and living.” (1)

The object of Rollins College is described in Article II of its constitution, as published in the first college catalogue

The universally agreed upon course of study to achieve this character-building was the classical curriculum, which involved a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin literature and was intended to provide, among other things, models of a virtuous public life. Equally as important to a Rollins character education were “Christian influences,”  seen as essential to a well-rounded liberal education. As described in the college catalogue in 1895: “It is believed that the truths of Christianity are in the highest degree adapted to awaken the faculties of the human mind. Christianity presents the ideals that afford the most powerful motive to choose these ideals and realize them in practical living and in fostering Christian character.” A small chapel was included in Knowles Hall, the first educational facility constructed by the Rollins founders. In addition to serving as an auditorium, the chapel provided the venue for mandatory daily morning pre-class devotionals. Students were also required to engage in Bible Studies on Sunday mornings and to attend Sunday services at a local Winter Park church. Recreational activities on the Sabbath were prohibited.

The auditorium and chapel in Knowles Hall. A portrait of college benefactor Alonzo Rollins hangs on the far wall.

The college guaranteed parents their children would be living in a Christian environment. As a way of assuring this promise, behaviors that Victorian evangelical Protestants considered sins were prohibited, and the rules were rigidly enforced. The use of alcohol and tobacco headed the list of sins, which also included cursing, loitering without purpose, and playing cards, which the faculty decided was “a sedentary game unsuitable for students and tending to lead toward immorality.” Students who violated these rules received demerits. The greatest sin and one that received the highest demerits was missing church on Sunday. (2)

“Home Life for the Students,” from the 1890-1891 College catalogue

The first presidents of Rollins College reinforced the institution’s commitment to Christian influences. Edward P. Hooker was serving as pastor of the local Congregational Church when he helped found Rollins and remained the church’s pastor while served as the college’s first president. The majority of the original faculty and trustees were Congregationalists, and several were pastors of Congregational churches in Florida. The third president, George Morgan Ward, who was the longest serving executive in the first decades after the founding, was an ordained Congregationalist minister and a magnetic preacher. He ended his career as pastor of Henry Flagler’s chapel in Palm Beach. (3)

Reverend George Morgan Ward ’03H, who served as president of Rollins College three times (1896-1902, 1916-1917, and 1919-1921)

Thus, “Christian influences” permeated early campus life. Three years after the opening of the first classes, the student newspaper confidently reported “religious atmosphere [is] everywhere. There is nothing sectarian. There is nothing obtrusive. But the school is Christian. A Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor at Winter Park is a force in this direction. At morning prayers with responsive readings and singing and prayers we begin each school day well.” Several years later, a former student, the noted author Rex Beach, confirmed (with a bit of sarcasm) that this “religious atmosphere” still prevailed:  “What the institution lacked in material means,” Beach recalled, “it made up in religious fervor: faculty and students alike prayed without provocation.” (4)

But even before the turn of the century, Rollins began making changes that over the next several decades would gradually reduce “Christian influences” in the college’s academic life. The first change was instituted, ironically, by pious George Morgan Ward. For a host of reasons, Ward led Rollins in the abandonment of the venerable classical curriculum. He substituted what he called a more “practical” course of study. In the process he flatly rejected the character-building premises that had driven the classical curriculum. Instead he argued for an elective system that allowed “students to choose their own courses in order that their education may be designed to their tastes and chosen vocations.” In the catalogue description of the new curriculum, the word “character” is notably absent. Courses on the Bible were listed simply as one of the electives. In 1908, Ward’s successor, President William Blackman, applied for a faculty retirement grant from the Carnegie Foundation. When he discovered the foundation gave preference to colleges unattached to a denomination, Blackman cut ties entirely with the National Association of Congregational Churches. The college had always advertised itself as non-sectarian; now it claimed to be non-denominational. (5)

True, neither Ward nor Blackman ever intended to abandon the Christian religion’s role in the lives of Rollins students. For example, when the original Knowles Hall burned to the ground in 1909, Blackman made certain a second Knowles Hall, constructed a year later, contained a chapel for religious services. Rollins still required mandatory attendance at chapel services, and college literature during this time advertised Rollins as “distinctively Christian in character.” But Ward’s curriculum changes and the break with the Congregational Association was symptomatic of a movement that was trending toward the separation of Christian religion from the academic life of the college. As indicative of this gradual shift, college literature changed from describing the institution as a repository of “Christian learning,” which implied a fusion of Christianity into the college’s intellectual life, and began to portray it as one of “Christian training,” which implied religion was a separate skill to be acquired.    

An even more serious threat to religion came from emerging secularization that gained momentum during the 1920s and accelerated after World War II.  A discussion of the forces contributing to this social and cultural transformation is beyond the scope of this essay, but the effect of this trend was to diminish the influence of religion on college campuses. At Rollins, marginalization of religion was set in motion (albeit unintentionally) by President Hamilton Holt, who assumed the presidency in 1925. Immediately upon arrival Holt initiated academic reforms that, among other effects, created a more democratic community where faculty and students were given greater opportunity to voice their opinions and even make decisions on a host of college policies.(6)

Portrait of Hamilton Holt, eighth president of Rollins (1925-1949)

This new empowerment enabled students and faculty the opportunity to question openly mandatory chapel attendance. Chapel services and required attendance, which had been a part of campus life since the founding, was the most significant remaining way religion still played a role in Rollins’s campus life. However, in the first two decades of the twentieth century that policy became more and more problematic. Student resistance to the requirement was pervasive. Constant absences forced the administration to frequently remind students that scheduled chapel attendance was required. In March 1918, the administration asked a committee to come up with “a plan to regulate cutting chapel.” Even the faculty resisted chapel attendance. At a faculty meeting in 1924, the president chided faculty members for lack of attendance and noted that in the future the dean would be “checking attendance at the door.” Disputations over mandatory chapel services continued unabated in the first years of the Holt administration. In a January 1929 letter to the editor, one student complained that most of his fellow students ignored the college’s required chapel attendance policy. The administration, he said, consistently reminded students of the policy but no one took it seriously. “The whole business seems hypocritical and I think has an adverse rather than a good influence on most students,” he complained. (7)

Finally, the issue was brought to a head. The January 24, 1930, issue of The Sandspur reported an “epoch meeting” where Rollins students voted to accept a Faculty/Student Committee’s recommendation suggesting “daily scheduled chapel services should be discontinued” and that, at any future services, student attendance be voluntary. One student, expressed her growing sense of empowerment by declaring “we are no longer children and should be able to decide whether or not we want to go [to chapel services].” (8)

Undoubtedly, Holt could not have been pleased with the faculty/student decision about chapel services. He firmly believed that the object of a liberal education was to form moral character, and he was convinced that purpose could best be achieved through “Christian learning.” He left no record of his opinion about ending required chapel attendance, but its discontinuance must have left him with the feeling that drastic measures were needed to retain religion’s place in a Rollins liberal education. As it happened, he was already committed to bringing religion back to a central place in the Rollins community. He was negotiating with firms about a large chapel which he intended to place in the center of the campus as visual evidence of Rollins’s commitment to preserve religion as an essential component of its educational purpose. He was preparing to oversee the construction of what would be known as Knowles Memorial Chapel.

Seen from this distance it seems reasonable to ask what Holt was thinking when he made the decision, during the emergence of a catastrophic economic depression, to spend $250,000 (over 4 million in today’s dollars) to construct an ecclesiastical structure just as religious influences were unmistakably waning in Rollins’s intellectual life. (It did not go unnoticed by the faculty that while this large sum was being spent on the chapel, they were being required to take a significant salary reduction to help the college meet its financial commitments.) It is true that the donor specifically designated the funds, but Holt was equally as eager to see an imposing chapel on the campus. He was a forward-looking progressive who fully supported Rollins’s academic reforms (in terms of pedagogy, he was far ahead of his times), but he was a traditionalist in his belief that the Christian religion was essential to a Rollins character-building education. No liberal education, he believed, could be complete without religion. But by 1929, even Holt must have seen the growing movement toward secularization. Perhaps the chapel would serve as a catalyst to rekindle the fires of religion once again in Rollins’s community life. A beautiful, magnificent chapel at the center of the campus would serve as visual evidence of the significance of religion at Rollins College.

No one articulated with more passion the significance of religion to a liberal education than Ralph Adams Cram, the architect Holt chose to design Knowles Chapel. A college education, he once declared, should develop all the intellectual and spiritual qualities of young people. The most effective way to achieve the latter, he argued, was immersion in religion. It was a “damnable opinion,” he declared, “that education [and the inculcation of ethics] may be divorced from religion. We have pretty much learned by this time (1921) that there is no effective education that is not interpenetrated by religion at every point.” (9)

Ralph Adams Cram ’38H, the architect of Knowles Memorial Chapel

College chapels were essential, he argued, because they provided a “spiritual and psychological influence [that] is perhaps the greatest teaching agency.” [They are] “the supreme means of expressing and of inciting those emotions that transcend experience.” They were “agencies of the redemption of the human character.” According to Cram, the most effective chapel style for eliciting and achieving all these spiritual purposes was Medieval Gothic. By the 1920s, Cram had established a reputation as a leading architect and spokesman for American Gothic Revival and specifically for American Collegiate Gothic. (10)

Hamilton Holt’s views on religion and its role in a liberal education matched Cram’s in all respects. Like Cram, Holt was a deeply religious man. He once said that a passage from a Leo Tolstoy essay precisely expressed his religious views: “Christianity is the best of all the world’s religions. The essence of Christianity is recorded in the Bible. The essence of the Bible is the life of Christ. The essence of the life of Christ is his sayings.” Over the years Holt had gone through the New Testament and identified the sayings scholars attributed to Jesus himself. In 1929, he delivered the Baccalaureate Address in which he read all the sayings he had collected. He later published the speech and distributed it in a 27-page pamphlet. Throughout the first years of his administration, he never sought to change the catalogue objective he inherited: “Inspiration from enlightened religion,” the catalogue stated, “will empower the college graduate to realize those ideals of the Bible that constitute the Christian hope of immortality.”  As late as 1935, the Holt administration catalogue stated, “Rollins was founded to provide for Christian education and it has steadfastly held to that ideal.” Like Cram, Holt was convinced religion had a central character-building role to play in a Rollins liberal education. (11)  

Frances Knowles Warren, daughter of a Rollins founder and one of its principal early benefactors, apparently was in the same frame of mind. The summer following Holt’s first year, Mrs. Warren and her sister, Mabel Knowles Gage, visited the Holt summer home in Connecticut. Afterward Mrs. Warren wrote Holt the following letter:

     Dear Mr. Holt,

    It was a great pleasure to my sister and me to meet Mrs. Holt and to be with you both in your charming old house. We are very glad to give in memory of our father and mother, $100,000 to Rollins College Winter Park, Florida. $75,000 [is] to be used in building of a chapel to be called “Knowles Chapel” and $25,000 to be kept as a fund, the income to be used for the upkeep and maintenance of the chapel. In accordance with our offer we will each send you on or before November first 1926 $25,000 and on or before June 1, 1927. another $25,000  each. We feel sure that Rollins College will, under your able direction, attain the high degree of excellence which our father and its other founders hope for it. We are cordially,

                                                                       Mabel Knowles Gage

                                                                       Frances Knowles Warren (12)

Mabel Knowles Gage and Frances Knowles Warren ’35H

No gift could have pleased Holt more, and with obvious excitement he began making plans. How, when, and why he contacted Ralph Adams Cram remains a mystery. Moreover, it seemed an odd choice, given Cram’s national reputation as a designer of classic Neo-Gothic cathedrals and churches (e.g., St. John the Divine Cathedral and St. Thomas Church in New York City) and Gothic collegiate chapels (e.g., Princeton University Chapel). Conversely, Holt was already implementing his plan to radically refashion the college’s built landscape with the Spanish Mediterranean style of architecture, a design he believed more in harmony with Florida’s sub-tropical environment. He had commissioned the first of these buildings (Rollins Hall dormitory) in 1929 and had selected Richard Kiehnel, noted Miami Mediterranean Revival architect, as the designer. Holt planned to continue this style whenever he received the funds.

Whatever Holt’s reasoning in choosing Cram, the famous architect was particularly receptive to the president’s queries. He had recently visited Spain and, according to his biographer, Douglas Shand-Tucci, to his surprise came home “fired up aesthetically and spiritually” with Spanish-style late Renaissance cathedrals and was eager to incorporate these characteristics into his designs.  He was in this mode of thought when Hamilton Holt invited him to design his new chapel.

Rollins Hall, circa 1934. This was the first campus building designed in the Spanish Mediterranean architectural style.

At a time in his career when he was often consulting rather than designing for his firm, Cram took an unusually personal interest in the chapel from the beginning to the end. His intention was to design a chapel that was in harmony with Holt’s plan to create a campus of Spanish Mediterranean style buildings. He was guided by this condition and by Spanish Renaissance cathedrals he saw in Spain, but the final product was all Cram. As Shand-Tucci described Knowles: the exterior “was starkly modern with rough stucco and broad blank surfaces.” There was almost no “exterior ornament except for the densely detailed main portal and the elaborate crown of it lofty tower.” The decor of the chapel interior “at once reflects the bold scale, and details it. The pavement throughout of unglazed red tiles; the hard plaster walls are given over to the slightest texture and colored a very discreet warm gray, punctuated but once or twice by small arcades of colored marble columns at the gallery level and by stained glass whose color scenes are set in Renaissance cartouches of white and golden around a silver hue. The ceiling, in contrast, is magnificently detailed, elaborately beamed and decorated in color. The high altar chancel is equally rich, paved in a variety of red, free, violet, black and gold marbles; and velvet and by richly carved walnut stalls.” (13)

A view of the chapel’s interior, 2009

Shand-Tucci considered Knowles Chapel Cram’s “chief Spanish-inspired landmark” and his “grandest flirtation” with the Spanish ecclesiastical style. It was “clean-cut and modern, regal in profile, magnificent in detail—Cram never designed a better building. It is, perhaps, his Renaissance masterwork.” Cram himself described the chapel as “conceived in terms of a modified and to a certain extend modernized Spanish Classic.” It was, he said, “an attempt to preserve the spirit of much of the work both in Spain and Spanish Mexico, with elements of Spanish Baroque.” (14)

In the midst of construction, which began in May 1931, the college received funds to build a new theatre. The gift sparked a Holt epiphany. He had recently read an article that discussed how modern drama arose from Easter Mass services and was thus “a child of the church.” Why not, Holt wrote Cram, place the theatre next to the chapel with a cloistered garden in between and then bring them together into conversation with two sets of loggias. Cram agreed. He designed the loggias and had the garden planned to resemble the ones he saw and admired in Spain, particularly the gardens at the Toledo Cathedral. For the Annie Russell Theatre design, Holt chose Richard Kiehnel, the architect of Rollins and Mayflower Halls. Kiehnel also served as onsite supervising architect for both buildings and closely cooperated with Cram to assure the styles of the two structures fit together. They were successful because, as Cram noted, despite “different authorship,” the buildings formed “one composition” and “harmonized with extreme delicacy.” (15)

The Annie Russell Theatre and Knowles Memorial Chapel, circa 1940s

Construction of the chapel and the theatre were completed simultaneously and both were dedicated on March 29, 1932. Ceremonies in the new chapel included speeches by Holt, Mrs. Warren, and Charles Atwood Campbell, recently appointed to the new office of Dean of the Chapel. These speakers and others attempted to explain why the chapel was essential to campus life, calling it “a place of mediation and prayer” where, Holt said, the college community could “work out life’s problems and may find inspiration and comfort in the [chapel’s] strength and beauty.” Dean Campbell suggested the chapel would be a place “where all may find security and peace.” (16)

President Hamilton Holt, Dean Charles Campbell, and Frances Knowles Warren at the dedication of Knowles Memorial Chapel

Those words (and many others spoken along the same lines) were lofty sentiments, but they begged two fundamental questions. One concerned the style of the chapel. Neither Cram nor Holt seemed troubled by a Catholic style chapel that was jarringly inconsistent with the college’s Congregational religious past and particularly with its liturgical worship services. Ordinarily, church architects (especially the erudite ones such as Ralph Adams Cram) understood the obligation to correlate an ecclesiastical structure with the congregation’s traditional mode of religious worship. Traditional Congregational liturgy appealed to the sense of hearing by focusing attention on the spoken Word. Thus, Congregationalists demand churches with sanctuaries with little or no ornamentation or decoration, because Congregationalists believed such features could be distractions from the minister’s sermon. The central feature of a Congregational sanctuary was the raised pulpit. On the other hand, the sanctuaries of Catholic cathedrals (and Episcopal churches), were designed to accord with a liturgy that appealed primarily to the senses of sight and taste. Therefore their sanctuaries were constructed with elaborate ornamentation with muted light to encourage somber sentiments. The altar was placed front and center for consecration and administration of the Eucharist, the high point of an Episcopal service. Knowles Chapel seemed designed for this kind of liturgy. The Knowles sanctuary, with its ornamentation, its polychrome ceiling and its stained glass windows, seemed to be awaiting a procession filled with incense and an altar in readiness for a Catholic mass. True, Knowles meshed with the Spanish Mediterranean style of other campus buildings, but it is still puzzling how a religious purist and traditionalist such as Cram would ignore the discordance between Knowles Chapel’s Catholic style and the planned Protestant liturgy.

An early view of the chancel

(This dissonance did not go unnoticed by the faculty. After one of the services, a faculty member declared within earshot of Holt that the service was aesthetically “obscene.” Form should follow form, he declared. “You can’t put on a Protestant show in a Catholic style chapel without incurring the charge of obscenity.” Needless to say, Holt was not pleased with this faculty member, but undoubtedly many others had similar thoughts.) (17)

The other question concerned the issue of whether a large, costly building was what the college needed, given its financial insecurity and with evidence that faculty and  students were exhibiting a growing disinterest in religion. Knowles was a projection of Holt’s personal views on the role of religion in college life. Standing majestically at the center of the campus, Knowles would serve as a powerful visual statement of the Christian (Protestant) religion’s significance to the Rollins College community. Holt planned for Knowles Chapel to become the center of campus life, a setting for what he called “the supreme events of [Rollins students’] lives: convocations, inaugurations, baccalaureates, commencements, and other academic festivals.” Whether the rest of the college community agreed was another matter. (18)

Hamilton Holt and the Chapel Choir at Convocation, 1945

So short of compulsory attendance, how did Holt try “to make the Chapel permeate all activities of the college?” Foremost, there were the Sunday morning services conducted by the Dean of the Chapel and open to faculty, students, and town residents. A magnificent organ designed and constructed  by one of America’s preeminent organ builders, the Otis Skinner Organ Company of Boston, along with an excellent student choir, provided uplifting music for Dean Campbell’s program of Protestant worship. The exquisitely sculptured pulpit from which the Dean delivered his sermons was designed to sit high above the congregation, in the style of early Puritan churches. At the pews were Pilgrim hymnals, song books that had been the staple of Congregational congregations for generations. (They still grace the pews.) Additionally, Holt set aside Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10:00 to 10:30 AM for what he called “convocation.” Little evidence exists indicating what happened at these gatherings, but apparently they were planned by a student chapel committee. Since attendance was voluntary, it is difficult to know how successful these gatherings were in attracting faculty and students. 

The specific architectural feature with which Cram and Holt sought to link the chapel to the college’s intellectual life was the conspicuous stained glass circular (rose) window. Stained glass windows, placed on both sides of a chapel, were considered the “handmaidens” of the Gothic architectural style and often were designed to teach Biblical lessons. Stained glass circular windows were placed high in the front of cathedrals and were purely ornamental. Cram and Holt decided to defy tradition and to make the circular widow serve didactic purposes. They used it to symbolically tie religion and Knowles Chapel to the college’s liberal education tradition. Designed by Cram, and constructed by the renowned William H. Burnham, the window depicts an allegorical female WISDOM “dignified and spiritual in appearance,” surrounded by the pillars of seven liberal arts, core subjects in a Medieval liberal education. Then Cram made certain the college community did not forget the main purpose of the chapel—he added pillars of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord, suggesting that true “WISDOM” required both the liberal arts and the Christian religion. (19) 

The Rose Window at Knowles Memorial Chapel

From the moment of its construction until he retired in 1949, Holt never lost his enthusiasm for Knowles Memorial Chapel. At the dedication he had told Mrs. Warren: “You have given us a building of majestic beauty, designed by the genius of an inspired architect, named for a revered father, and consecrated to the glory of God and the Christ on whom we see the reflection of the Father.” He then charged the trustees, faculty, and students to make the chapel the center of the spiritual life of Rollins College. They all answered, “We will.” But had he really succeeded in convincing the college community of his vision of the chapel’s central purpose? The answer: for a time, with students, he had mixed success. In the first decade following the chapel’s construction, Knowles was a beehive of activity. Even as late as the 1950s, student service organizations, such as the Interracial Committee, headed by a student named Fred Rogers, were centered at the chapel. And the chapel choir attracted a large number of students who sang at Sunday Services. Moreover, because it was the only large venue for gatherings, it was often crowded with religious services, events, and “academic festivities.” Annual Christmas vespers filled the chapel with worshipers, and Holt took pride in honoring visiting dignitaries, such as Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, in Knowles Chapel.   

President Franklin Roosevelt ’36H speaking at Knowles Memorial Chapel in 1936. Eleanor Roosevelt is seated on the right.

For faculty members it was a different matter. The first indication of their attitude about the chapel came a few months after its dedication. Concerned that the bi-weekly convocations were disrupting classes, one of the faculty committees sent a formal letter to the president: “As a committee and as individuals, we protest that the bi-weekly convocations are extending beyond the 10:30 class period. A convocation of doubtful value,” the committed charged, “disrupted [classes] and in fact led some faculty members to disband their classes altogether.” Holt apologized for the disruption of classes, but he bristled at identifying chapel convocations as having “doubtful value.” Still, the committee letter should have been a red flag for Holt, signaling that members of the faculty did not share his enthusiasm for the chapel and its religious purpose. In the following years, particularly as the college began attracting students and faculty with diverse religious backgrounds, the relevance of the chapel began to diminish. (20)  

In the post-World War II era, the seemingly inexorable forces of secularization continued to diminish the role of the chapel in Rollins College’s community life. A 1947 photograph of a chapel service, taken two years before Holt retired, is revealing of this trend—the chapel is full, but there is little evidence of student or faculty attendance. The service is being conducted for Winter Park residents. In time, attendance at Sunday worship services became so scarce they were held in the tiny Frances Chapel. Between 1970 and 1980 student service organizations, heretofore a part of chapel life, were placed within the purview of the student affairs offices. From the 1970s forward, the word “religion” completely vanished from any literature describing the college or its purposes.

So what did all this mean for Knowles Memorial Chapel? Sadly, it meant that Hamilton Holt had constructed a large structure that was expensive to maintain and reflected a past college culture that was rapidly disappearing. He delivered his 1949 “commencement” farewell address in the chapel, where he passed on the wisdom he had gained in his 24 years as president. In the address, he never once mentioned the word “religion” or referred to the magnificent structure in which he was speaking. He too must have sensed the fundamental change in the role of religion that had disappeared before his very eyes.

Then an event occurred in the late 1960s that symbolically put an exclamation point on the growing significance of scientific empirical knowledge over religious faith in Rollins College life. In 1969, Holt’s successor, Hugh McKean, dedicated the Bush Science Center. It had been placed just northwest of Knowles’s front entrance. The large three-story building, which greatly exceeded Knowles in square footage, almost but did not quite obscure the visual centrality of the chapel. Prophetically, Bush was given the title of “Center,” a designation Holt earmarked for the chapel alone. In 2013, Bush was renovated, and a large classroom/atrium was added to the south side, nearer the Chapel’s entrance. When the renovation was completed, Knowles Chapel seemed hidden and dwarfed by the new dominance of the Archibald Granville Bush Science Center. Bush seemed to be positioned as a visual metaphor of the triumph of scientific empiricism in the intellectual life at Rollins College.

The Bush Science Center in 2013

By the end of the twentieth century, Holt’s vision of the Christian religion’s role at Rollins had receded to an afterthought. True, Christian services were held every Sunday in the chapel, and religion courses were still offered in the Philosophy and Religion Department. But Christianity had lost its centrality and now shared the spotlight with “World Religions.” In 2016, the title Dean of the Chapel was changed to Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life. This new office was charged with assisting “students on their spiritual journey” and with offering “a wide array of religious services and programs,” including a Muslim student union with a part-time imam, a Catholic ministry to conduct Mass on campus, guided meditations led by a Buddhist Monk, and Hillel for those of the Jewish faith. Holt had purposely chosen the title Office of the Dean of the Chapel because he wanted the chapel itself to be the focus of campus life. The new title and revised program meant that the original purpose for building a large expensive chapel—that is, as a center for Christian learning—had been replaced by a variety of “spiritual communities” of the kind that required no large Spanish Mediterranean-style chapel to meet their needs. (Though, ironically, it did fit the weekly Catholic Mass.) (21)

These changes were consistent with the college’s recently stated goal of encouraging diversity and inclusion, but those very goals meant the chapel itself had lost its original relevancy, a casualty of the long struggle against the forces of scientific empiricism, secularism, and (most recently) religious diversity. In this sense, it could be argued that the college’s most artistic architectural creation now serves as a visual reminder of the religious values of a bygone era; a “monument to a disappearing Christian ideal.” A “gift” that has become Rollins College’s sacred “white elephant.”

But that view would not embody Knowles’s full significance to the Rollins campus. Knowles Chapel’s original purpose may have “succumbed” to the inevitable forces of historical change, but it remains a noble architectural icon. On a campus with impressive historic buildings designed by renowned architects such as James Gamble Rogers II and Richard Kiehnel, none rival the artistic beauty of Ralph Adams Cram’s chapel. Perhaps it is a “monument,” but if so it is a magnificent monument of exquisite detail and aesthetic elegance. Knowles Chapel’s contribution to Rollins’s visual landscape is unmatched, and its presence not only gives us the joy of experiencing a nonpareil artistic treasure, but, as with all historic buildings, it also provides a window into an essential feature of the college’s cultural and religious past. And for many (and I am one) it is still a place of reverence and spiritual expression, just as Holt and Cram hoped it would be.

Finally, for those who attend the annual baccalaureate service, for those who come to the chapel to hear the voices of the nationally recognized Bach Orchestra and Choir, for those who gather for annual Christmas Vespers music sung by the talented Rollins Student Choir and for those who choose the chapel for their wedding ceremonies and memorial services, Knowles is still a very special place. In this age of secularization and specialization, such an ecclesiastical structure would not likely be constructed, but Rollins College would be much poorer without it.

The Knowles Memorial Chapel tower


1. Quoted in Jack C. Lane, Rollins College Centennial History (2017), 33.

2.  Rollins College Catalogue, 4; Regulations covered in Lane, Centennial History, 46-50.

3. See Chapters 2 and 3 Lane, Centennial History for a discussion of the early Rollins presidents

4.  Sandspur, February 10, 1898.

5.  See Lane, Centennial History, Chapter 3.

6. George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief (1994). 249.

7. Faculty Minutes, March, 1918; Faculty Minutes, Sandspur, January, 1929.

8. Sandspur, January 24, 1933. Discontinuing of mandatory chapel services and the recommendation to reduce the number of services at Rollins was not done in isolation; it was in line with other colleges and universities that also dropped required chapel services. These decisions were significant because it meant diminishing the last remains of religious tradition on campuses. But the development also set in motion a backlash from many college presidents who were deeply concerned that religion was disappearing as an essential element of a liberal education. Hamilton Holt was one of those presidents. Margaret M. Grubiak, White Elephants on Campus: The Decline of University Chapels in America, 1920-1960. (2014), 7.

9.  Quoted in Grubiak, White Elephants on Campus:  21.

10. Ralph Adams Cram, The Ministry of Art, 107. Cram’s contention that scientific empiricism had diminished the study of the humanities and that exploring the “meaning of life” was at the main purpose of a liberal education is still an ongoing issue. See Anthony Kronman: Education’s End: Why Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. (2007)

11. “Baccalaureate Sermon,” January 2, 1929. Holt Papers. Discontinuing mandatory chapel services and even the recommendation to reduce the number of services at Rollins was not done in isolation; it was in line with other colleges and universities that also dropped required chapel services. These decisions were significant because it meant diminishing the last remains of religious tradition on campuses. But the development also set in motion a backlash from many college presidents who were deeply concerned that religion was disappearing as an essential element of a liberal education. Hamilton Holt was one of those presidents.

Holt, like many other college presidents throughout the nation, was engaged in rear-guard behavior during the 1920s and 1930s. In an effort to stave off the drift toward secularization, university and college presidents (such as those at Princeton, Columbia, Harvard and others too numerous to list) encouraged the building of large ecclesiastical structures on their campuses. As one historian has determined, this spurt of chapel building was clear evidence of how these college presidents were trying to retain the centrality of religion in a twentieth century liberal education in the face of encroaching secularization and the growing movement that privileged science over religion as the primary path to truth. It proved to be a futile endeavor. The combination of the modern science’s empiricism and secularization were already in the 1930s nudging religion to the fringes of academic life. Campus leaders believed these new, large ecclesiastical structures would be, at the very least, powerful visual statements of the significance of the Christian (Protestant) religion on their campuses. They hoped the structures would be a primary venue for a variety of campus activities. Holt, for example, not only established bi-weekly convocations but made certain Knowles Chapel became the setting for what he called “the supreme events of [Rollins students] lives: convocations, inaugurations, baccalaureates, commencements and other academic festivals.

12. Letter in Holt Papers.

13.  Douglas Shand-Tucci, Ralph Adams Cram: Architect’s Four Quests: Medieval, Modernist, American,  Ecumenical (2005),, 256.-257.

14. Ibid., 257.

15. Article in the Holt Papers. See Holt to Cram February 18, 1931 on theatre gift; Cram Notes on Chapel, Knowles, Chapel Papers.

16. Charles Campbell, Speech at Dedication of Knowles Chapel.

17. Lane, Centennial History, 172.

18. Holt Speech at Chapel Dedication.

19. William H. Burnham, “Notes on the Rose Window,”  Chapel Papers Wilbur H. Burnham was one of the nation’s most notable stained glass artists. He began work in 1904 and had his own studio by 1922 and devoted his professional efforts to designing windows to serve architecture.  As an advocate of the medieval stained glass tradition, Burnham’s philosophical compatibilities with Cram led to commissions to provide windows for Cram’s churches in many of the major cities in North America. 

In addition to convincing a renowned stained artist such as Burnham to construct the rose window, Cram was also acquired the nation’s foremost organ builders, the E.M. Skinner Company, to construct the chapel’s organ. Skinner was by the mid-1920s regarded as the preeminent organ-builder of his day, and his instruments were known for their solid construction and the lush orchestral beauty of their tone, which was commonly referred to as the Symphonic Organ. The tonal design of the Knowles Chapel organ was probably a collaborative effort between Skinner and G. Donald Harrison, a former associate and protégé of the English organ-builder Henry Willis, who had come to America in 1927. It included Great, Swell, Choir, and Pedal divisions, and through Harrison’s influence, the English trumpets and tubas were introduced.

20. Curriculum Committee Report, January 18, 1933.





In addition to Rollins Archival material, I have consulted these sources:

Margaret M. Grubiak, White Elephants on Campus: The Decline of University Chapels in America, 1920-1960. (2014)

George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief. (1994)

Douglas Shand-Tucci, Ralph Adams Cram: Architect’s Four Quests: Medieval, Modernist, American,  Ecumenical. (2005)

Skinner was by the mid-1920s regarded as the preeminent organ-builder of his day, and his instruments were known for their solid construction and the lush orchestral beauty of their tone, which was commonly referred to as the Symphonic Organ. The tonal design of the Knowles Chapel organ was probably a collaborative effort between Skinner and G. Donald Harrison, a former associate and protégé of the English organ-builder Henry Willis, who had come to America in 1927. It included Great, Swell, Choir, and Pedal divisions, and through Harrison’s influence, the English trumpets and tubas were introduced.

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