(Duke Chapel sketches by Julian Abele, chief designer of the Chapel, provided by Duke University Archives.)
Duke Chapel is an example of neo-Gothic architecture in the English style. Gothic architecture is characterized by large stone piers, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses, which allow the creation of vast open spaces, uninterrupted by columns for support. The result is an imposing structure and vast interior space that invite visitors to marvel at the wonders of faith and creation. In Duke Chapel, steel trusses are used in place of traditional wooden ones. This eliminates the need for large flying buttresses, reduces the load on the walls, and reduces potential fire hazards.
The Chapel is constructed of a volcanic stone from a quarry in Hillsborough, North Carolina, which was purchased by the University for the construction of West Campus. Known as Hillsborough bluestone, the beautiful and distinctive stone actually ranges in color through 17 shades, from rust orange to slate gray. The stones are of varying sizes, all cut to the same proportions (twice as long as they are high).
The pulpit, lectern, and other trimmings are made of Indiana limestone.
The vaults of the choir are made of stone, but the walls and vaults of the nave and transepts are made of Guastavino tile, a ceramic tile also used in such structures as New York’s Grand Central Station, the Queensboro Bridge, and Grant’s Tomb. Use of this tile instead of stone also helps reduce the load on the walls. The structural tile is, in turn, covered with Guastavino’s patented sound-absorbing Akoustalith tile. Before the Flentrop organ was installed, in 1976, this tile was coated with a sealant to increase the reverberation time, making the Chapel more suited to the sounds of the organ.