Leaves his signature on The Hilltop
by Peter Hoehnle '96
Visitors to the Cornell College campus are met with two massive, castle-like structures that dominate the Hilltop. King Chapel and Bowman Hall, together with two distinctive homes in this community of 4,506, are the work of Cass Chapman, a forgotten 19th-century Chicago architect whose flights of architectural fancy have given this campus its unique signature.
Although not a celebrated architect in his time, Chapman's remaining structures are landmarks in their respective communities. Indeed, for well over a century King Chapel has been the campus icon and a symbol of permanence and culture to all who approach Mount Vernon.
Chapman (1834–1900) was reputedly the first white child born in Niles, Mich., and was named for the first territorial governor of the Michigan territory, Lewis Cass. As an adult, he worked as a carpenter and builder in Niles, served as Berrien county recorder, and was active in local fraternal organizations.
In 1868 Chapman moved to Chicago presumably to work as an architect with Rufus Rose, an architect for whom he had supervised the construction work on a Niles church. Their office was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which also destroyed the Lakeside Building, a structure Chapman designed for the R.R. Donnelley Press. Construction had reached the fifth floor at the time of the fire.
Chapman and his wife, Harmony, remained in Chicago post fire. In 1874 he briefly partnered with James H. Place and moved into offices in Jenney's Lakeside Building in Chicago, the successor to Chapman's own design.
In 1875 Chapman was hired by Cornell College to design a college chapel—the first professionally designed building on the Cornell campus. The selection of Chapman may have been related to standardized designs he had prepared for the new Board of Church Extension of the Methodist Church, a group dedicated to supporting the construction of new churches and headed by Alpha J. Kynett, a member of the Cornell College Board of Trustees.
Daily services had been held in the building today known as Old Sem, and later, in a chapel room located in the building now known as College Hall. The need for a separate chapel must have been apparent for years to the board of trustees who in early 1874 "resolved that immediate steps be taken for the erection of a chapel building." Curiously, this action was taken in the midst of a financial panic and while President William Fletcher King, who likely would have prevented the decision, was in Europe.
Upon his return, King, an astute business man, saw the great folly of the board's decision and the "exceedingly embarrassing situation" in which it placed him as college president. Undaunted, King set to work and, ultimately, brought the project to a successful