The Chapel + Cultural Center (C+CC) is a multipurpose performing arts and worship space that serves the educational, cultural, social, and spiritual needs of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the surrounding Troy and greater Capital Region communities. The building is owned and operated by the Rensselaer Newman Foundation (RNF), a 501(c3) nonprofit corporation chartered in 1963 by the New York State Board of Regents to provide artistic, educational and religious programming in the City of Troy, New York. In addition to its secular role as a performing arts and social center, C+CC is home to the University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice, a Roman Catholic parish affiliated with the Diocese of Albany, New York.
The building is an important example of modernist architecture that represents the best of 1960-era design and construction practices. Its design reflects modernist ideals of utility, economy, and honesty of purpose and adornment. Although clearly a building for community gathering and assembly, including religious uses, the C+ CC transcends church architecture. The building draws its adornment from the people and activities it houses – in its assembly spaces and on its terraces and lawns. Nor does the architecture dictate or constrain its uses; rather each event appropriates and translates the architecture to its needs. The building is equally successful as a vessel for sacred gatherings, concerts, fairs, memorial services, community breakfasts, and exercise classes.
The building was crafted of contemporary state-of-the-art materials expressed in straightforward ways. There is very little drywall or other applied surface; there are no hung ceilings (except in kitchen and toilet areas). Areas within the building are designed to be used for multiple purposes. Entrances and exits are direct. There are splashes of walnut and color, all secondary to the overall sense that the building is close to the earth on which it is grounded and from which it was crafted.
The C+CC was constructed using building technology considered advanced for that time. The energy conservation features implemented in the design were quite unusual, given the building’s construction prior to the oil crisis of 1974. Examples of these features include:
- Masonry walls that feature a European-style cavity wall construction that is still seldom seen today and promotes energy conservation by providing thermal and moisture breaks and allowing the use of additional insulation.
- Windows of the residence area that were assembled with insulated glass utilizing a very thin perimeter seal. Windows of that era were typically single-pane glass so the use of insulated glass was unusual.
- A mechanical system for the chapel that utilizes an interconnected series of components designed to take advantage of the natural ventilation to reduce energy costs.
- A large portion of the mechanical system was concealed within the masonry construction of the building through the use of careful planning and detailed construction drawings. Supply ducts and air registers are concealed so that the physical space they occupy does not intrude on the interior space.
The building opened in October 1968 and drew immediate attention and recognition both for its outstanding design and novel purpose. By February 1969, multiple national and international publications had written articles on the C+CC, including feature articles in Progressive Architecture and The New York Times. An article by Franklin Whitehouse published in the New York Times on 8 December 1968, lauded the utilitarian simplicity of its
unfinished concrete-block structure and the functional flexibility of the space. A European television consortium, Eurovision, filmed a documentary on the building as a model for a new kind of building that combined secular and sacred space. The building was also awarded a design citation and characterized by the jury of architects as “A vigorous, earthy, forthright building” in the 1967 Liturgical Conference Award Competition in Church Architecture.
A book specifically about the C+CC, Community on Campus (Myron B. Bloy, Jr., editor), was published in 1971, arguing that the distinct multi-purpose model created by the RNF’s founding trustees marked a major milestone in the development of the contemporary Catholic Church in America by fully embracing the Second Vatican Council‘s liberalization of the liturgy and the role of the Church in the secular world.
On 22 February 2011, the United States Department of the Interior recognized C+CC’s architectural and social significance by adding it to the National Registry of Historic Places, making it the “youngest” structure on the registry.
The significance of the C+CC is evident in the context of its social importance to the RPI, Troy and greater Capital Region communities. The building serves religion and the arts equally well, supporting a myriad of community activities; art exhibitions and openings; music, film, dance, and theatre performances; and speakers on all types of topics. Examples of these activities include the following.
- The opening celebrations of the building in October 1968 were a perfect blend of secular and sacred activities and quickly demonstrated its multi-functional capability. There was a performance by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, an All-Saints-Day Mass that blended the contemporary church music of Father Clarence Rivers, a noted composer, with the jazz of Nick Brignola, a nationally recognized jazz musician; a day-long architectural conference; a student film competition; three one-act plays; a rock concert; poetry readings; and The RPI Players fall semester production of A Man for All Seasons.
- The C+CC serves as an important public forum for discourse on contemporary scientific, economic, and cultural events significant to the university and business communities in the Capital Region. A good example of this is the annual Town and Gown Breakfast. Instituted in 1985, this event brings together the area’s non-academic population and the university community at RPI. Speakers at this event address diverse topics, ranging from current trends in science and technology, architecture, the arts, and philosophy to local economic development activities and opportunities for town and gown to collaborate. Visit our Town and Gown page for more details and a listing of past programs.
- Whether as a meeting place for Tai Chi and meditation classes, blood drives, high school and RPI student leadership training programs, literacy or Habitat for Humanity volunteers, the building supports the diverse social needs of the local community.
- C+CC has served, and continues to serve, its constituents as an accessible venue for the performing arts (theatre, film, music) and visual arts exhibitions. The Gallery at the Chapel + Cultural Center presents 6 bi-monthly exhibitions of local, national and international painters, sculptors, graphic artists and craftspeople per year. The Gallery is open to the public seven days a week and the admission is always free. The C+CC’s permanent art and crafts collection includes works by Pablo Picasso, Tomie dePaola, George Nakashima, Edgar Holloway, Larry Kagan, Eric Gill, Betty LaDuke and numerous other contemporary artists.
- A part of RPI, the Troy and greater Capital Region communities in celebration and sorrow, the C+CC has been and is the site of numerous personal spiritual ceremonies – weddings, baptisms, and funerals. The building is frequently the site of non-denominational memorial services for RPI faculty and staff and other members of the local community.
The C+CC has been an unqualified success as a very unusual building that fulfills its design intent and readily accommodates secular or sacred activities. It embodies the honest straightforwardness of its simple modernist design, serves town, gown, and parish groups equally, and facilitates a sense of community. Its architectural significance is well established and its use by many diverse groups clearly demonstrates its mark on the community’s social fabric and history. A fine example of modernist architecture and an important community site, the C+CC holds exceptional significance as a building and as a center for spiritual community.