From before the arrival of the first students in 1909, the founders envisioned a chapel at the heart of this school. The Reverend Frederick W. Neve, Rector of the Episcopal parish in Ivy and Archdeacon of the Blue Ridge, conceived the school as a mission to the isolated youngsters of the region, and the Reverend George Mayo, first Headmaster, insisted that the Prayer Book services be part of its regular schedule. But money was short, and for the first two decades of the school’s life, weekday and Sunday services were held either in the auditorium or the dining hall.
Gradually, sufficient money was raised to begin construction of the chapel. The Bishop of Virginia, Henry St. George Tucker, laid the cornerstone on August 14, 1929. Three years later, on May 29, 1932, the Bishop Coadjutor of Virginia, Frederick D. Goodwin, led the service of consecration. The chapel was named in memory of Robert A. Gibson, Bishop of Virginia when the school was founded.
The chapel’s design was a gift from America’s best-known architect at the time, Ralph Adams Cram. Then in his late sixties, Cram was a professor of architecture at M.I.T. and had been a major force in the gothic revival movement since the beginning of the century. He was best known for his monumental churches, particularly the chapels at West Point and Princeton, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. But Cram was also fond of English country churches and frequently used them as his models. This chapel, together with those at Phillips Exeter Academy and Choate-Rosemary Hall, are superb examples of this modest style.
Cram donated his plans without ever seeing Blue Ridge School. The plans needed a local interpreter, and Dr. Mayo found him in Stanislaus J. Makielski, a young professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, who also contributed his services. Shortly afterward Makielski designed the adjoining Battle House (originally called “the Rectory”) as both a home and an office for the Headmaster.
The chapel was built by local craftsmen out of uncut native fieldstone. The ironwork was manufactured on the grounds, and the boys themselves made the pews in the school’s carpentry shop. Given that those were the beginning of the Depression years, the construction of the chapel proved a boon to many in the area who would not otherwise have been able to find work.
A few of the original furnishings are memorial gifts: the altar cross is a tribute to Bishop Gibson, the vases to John W. Gordon, and the chalice to Mabel S. Emery, one of the school’s first teachers. The altar candlesticks were a gift from the Women’s Auxiliary of the diocese, and the paten was donated by the Class of 1932. A richly decorated collection plate, the 1932 gift of Lady Astor (the Virginia native Nancy Langhorne) is on display in the Library.
Bessie Thornton Turner, a Blue Ridge teacher who arrived in 1909 and remained until her retirement in 1952, wrote a loving appreciation of the chapel in a 1945 edition of the Blue Ridge Mission’s newsletter, The Mountain Echo:
“The chapel has grown to be so much a vital part of the school that even those who remember the ‘old days’ forget that it has not always been here, for in intention and hope it has been here from the beginning. The building, exquisite in design and structure, is in undeniable reality a part of its mountain environment, for the native stone of which it is built is truly a part of the hills themselves, ‘bone of their bone’ through endless ages.
“Seen against the background of the hills, it gives more than ever that sense of oneness with its surroundings, for no hour or season can change the soft harmony of outline and color—silver and rose and deep sea green and the phantom blue of the hills. Whether there is snow or moonlight or the flashing beauty of autumn woods, the chapel belongs by nature and design just where it is. Inside there is the peace of perfect simplicity—not the kind obviously at war with harshness of outline and a sense of completeness, but the simplicity that rests upon adequacy of detail without a loss of freedom and harmony and rest.”
In 1993 the chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Virginia Historic Landmark.
Monday services are normally at 7:00 p.m. Members of the public are always welcome to attend.
The support that our son received from Blue Ridge School was breathtaking. The teachers cared for Darryl as if he was their own son. They all did a great job preparing him for the real world. I thank them all for bringing out the best in him. - Marsha Smith (Darryl ’13 is attending Cornell University.)