Visiting a rare work of Louis Comfort Tiffany art in the Willard Memorial Chapel in Auburn
by Chris Clemens
With plenty to see in Auburn, we set out for a day that included a bunch of Cayuga County sites. Foremost on our list was one of the rarest Louis Comfort Tiffany gems in America: The Willard Memorial Chapel.
Formerly known as the Willard Memorial Chapel Welch Memorial Building, it has amazing history. It is the last remaining building once belonging to the Auburn Theological Seminary, established in 1818. Its most noteworthy claim is that it is the only remaining complete, unaltered interior design by famed glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany–in existence!
The seminary admitted its first students in 1821 and at its peak; used over 10 acres of land. The campus included several different buildings, including a five story dormitory, a library with a museum, and a printing press. These buildings prepared thousands of pastors and missionaries to later go on work across the globe.
What we call the Willard Chapel today was built and established by 1894. The project was financed by Caroline and Georgianna Willard, in memory of their parents Jane Frances Case Willard and Dr. Sylvester Willard, both notable philanthropists and advocates for the downtrodden. The Willard sisters chose the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company to design the chapel’s interior. While Tiffany did design other church interiors, the Willard Chapel is said to be the only complete one still existing.
Our tour guide told us that every detail in the chapel is Tiffany, which includes 14 original stained glass windows, a nine-paneled stained glass rose window, a three-paneled stained glass window of “Christ Sustaining Peter on the Water,” a glass mosaic floor, nine glass chandeliers, oak furniture richly embellished with gold leaf stenciling, a glass jeweled pulpit, and a very large gilded plaster wall mosaic.
The only thing not original Tiffany is the current cushions on the pews and seats.
A New Era
By 1939, the Auburn Theological Seminary had relocated to Manhattan (where they are still located) due to low enrollment. Buildings on the campus started to come down, but the Willard Chapel remained vacant until 1957. During that year, the chapel was purchased by The Seventh Day Adventist Church.
The Adventists did some of their own remodeling and painted over some interior walls and organ pipes. Our docent explained that the Adventists felt the chapel needed to be a bit less “loud” and toned down. They remained in the chapel until 1988.
Willard Chapel again sat vacant until 1990 when the Community Preservation Committee of Auburn won their “Save the Chapel” campaign. Due to their hard work, by 2005 the chapel (and the adjoining Welch Building) were designated National Historic Landmarks.
Since then, the Willard Memorial Chapel has existed to serve the public as a museum.
Inside the Willard Memorial Chapel
The common hallways and office rooms inside the Welch building are kind of what you’d expect from an old building. There’s lot of cool little old details, and plenty of artwork to see. But, inside the chapel space, the building takes on a brand new aesthetic.
When you first step into the room, you’ll be stepping onto an original mosaic tiled floor. Even with over a century of use, the colors still visible in the floor are a work of art. Directly opposite is a ceiling entirely stenciled in delicate gold leaf and gorgeous oak beams. Hanging from that ceiling are the chandeliers featuring a similar gold-and-green color pattern that fills the room.
It’s not often that you’ll find a piece like the broad-winged angel hanging in the back of the room. The entire piece of art rests below a vibrant stained glass set, but it seems to be watching over the room from the back. I think this struck me because so often we find striking imagery in the direction that pews are facing. In this space, Tiffany designed an anchor piece of artwork in the rear of the nave instead.
As you can imagine, the stained glass collection at Willard is just as outstanding as any Tiffany glass you might find. But, what’s particularly cool about this collection, is that it presents an opportunity to see of bunch of the signature Tiffany styles in one place.
Tiffany’s glass ultimately became famous because he was able to produce textures like flowing robes without using paint like other artists. Here at Willard, the windows are low enough to the ground that even for a short guy like me, many of those small details can be experienced up close.
Throughout the collection of windows you’ll find examples of his hammered glass, turtle back glass, and drapery glass. While the entire space is a work of art, it’s tough not to spend a ton of time gazing into the windows.
This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens