King Chapel across generations

Icon unites Cornellians of all eras

By Beth DeBoom

It was a FrIday afternoon In 1972, the fall of freshman year for Allan Ruter ’76, and he was sufferIng through an acute case of homesIckness.

Ruter called his parents and asked them to come, figuring that some TLC would be the best medicine. But, in the end, it was King Chapel that cured him.

While his parents prepared to make the 2.5 hour trip to Mount Vernon, Ruter came across an ad for a performance that night.

Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, immensely popular nationwide for his edgy humor and political satire, was coming to King Chapel. Ruter was intrigued, enough so that he called home and cancelled the parental intervention. Later, in the midst of watching Gregory, he pondered that if he had gone home, he would have been watching a high school football game just about then.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said of that turning point in his acclimation to Cornell. “I felt a million miles away from home, yet I felt very at home at the same time.”

King Chapel is divinely inspirational that way. Not just a place, King Chapel is a repository of moments that, combined, have nurtured, shaped, and launched young lives.

Students have been eager witnesses to the words and music pouring prolifically from within. Isaac Stern, Marilyn Horne, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and John Denver have brought audiences out of their pews. Martin Luther King Jr., Frank Lloyd Wright, President William H. Taft, Carl Sandburg, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and Gloria Steinem have enlightened audiences there.

It was Wright who famously pronounced King Chapel, “the most odious example of General Grant gothic and the second ugliest building in the United States.”

Bah. Wright was wrong. Most are more likely to consider King Chapel a sublimely beautiful campus icon. The 130-foot Victorian gothic chapel, its limestone quarried locally, its Seth Thomas tower clock originally decked out in 23-carat gold-covered numerals and hands, soars upward from the wooded heart of an otherwise largely brick colonial campus.

“Like a sore thumb,” Ruter said.

Or in more poetic terms offered by Jean Tapp Beal ’52, “When driving to Mount Vernon, I always look for the chapel tower and spires. For me, King Chapel is a spiritual presence on top of the hill.”

Beal attended chapel daily. It was required then, with strictly enforced roll call that could only be thwarted with bribes.

Yet Beal emerged from the “tyranny” with nothing but eternal reverence and funny anecdotes. The dog that kept popping up on stage with unsuspecting notable speakers. The social groups that rigged alarm clocks to startle speakers. Afterward, Beal recalled, those speakers were evaluated on their reactions.

Now 130 years old, the King Chapel experience remains powerful, but the place is showing signs of age. As part of the college’s Extraordinary Opportunities campaign, an elevator will be installed, the majestic organ renovated, and the building’s structural integrity restored. The foundation has shifted, making walls bow a bit.

Anyone familiar with the history of the building knows these are small potato problems when compared with the gauntlet that was King Chapel’s birth.

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