Michael S. Rose.....
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26 March 2004
A hothouse chapel in Hurricane Alley
Ave Maria University needs to return to the drawing board but quick!

This week announced detailed plans for a proposed chapel on its newly-founded campus near Naples, Florida. Requiring three thousand tons of structural steel and aluminum, the 60,000-square-foot glass-skinned church is set to be the nation’s largest. Unfortunately, the design unveiled by school officials is an impractical eyesore.

Although its floor plan is vaguely reminiscent of a basilica-style church, the unsightly structure otherwise breaks with the history and tradition of Catholic church architecture while tipping its hat to some of the more avant-garde Protestant productions of recent decades. Moreover, it consciously avoids any connection to the rich Spanish mission style so common to Florida for several centuries.

Not only is it ugly, it is certain to be an embarassment to an otherwise promising Catholic institution of higher learning. Quite obviously the chapel is inconsistent with Ave Maria’s reputation for embracing authentic Catholic culture and tradition.

The proposed church is perhaps most reminiscent of Sir Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, the enormous hall designed to house London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Constructed entirely of cast iron and glass, the Palace was the largest structure to be built of prefabricated units up to that time. It is generally recognized by architectural historians as the forerunner of industrial construction that has produced many of the unseemly behemoths of the twentieth century. Paxton was a horticulturist, landscape gardener and greenhouse architect. Not coincidentally, his masterpiece resembled a giant hothouse.

Alack, the same can be said of Ave Maria’s proposed church. The 60-foot red-tinted glass cross embedded within the transparent front fa├žade does little to reassure one that this filigree structure isn’t a conservatory full of insectivorous plants and steaming compost piles. In fact, the proposed structure should nicely suit the purpose of cultivating exotic plants out of season. After all, hothouses are designed to be, well, hot. Considering the blistering heat and humidity that characterizes the climate in southern Florida much of the year, a glass building is about as impractical as it gets—not for plants but for people. (Has no one considered the incredible impact of solar heat gain?) Add to that the fact that Ave Maria’s new campus is sprouting in Hurricane Alley, and you’ve got to wonder if this isn’t an early April Fool’s joke.

One call to the university assured me that this is no joke. It’s the real thing—and they’re moving ahead with the project come heat or hurricanes. The chapel is expected to be completed in 2006 along with much of the rest of the new campus.

Ave Maria seems to be making a fuss over the shear enormity of the proposed church. According to a March 24 press release, university officials boasted that the new chapel "will have [the] largest seating capacity of any Catholic church in the country" as well as "the largest crucifix in the world."

The largest crucifix in the world? Come now. If that doesn’t smack of megalomania, I don’t know what does. And why on earth would a small Catholic school with 122 students knocking around 1,000 acres in the remote swamplands of Florida need—or want—to accommodate a whopping 3,300 people? Why would petite Ave Maria aim for more seating than New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral or Cardinal Mahony’s celebrated Yellow Armadillo in L.A., both of which serve as the spiritual centerpiece of archdioceses that serve millions of Catholics?

Well, it just so happens that seed money for the mega-project was provided by Thomas S. Monaghan, former owner of the Detroit Tigers and founder of Dominos Pizza. Mr. Monaghan, a generous philanthropist, tends to think big. But one must understand that bigger is not necessarily better nor even desirable.

Wouldn’t it make much more sense for a fledgling school like Ave Maria to build a well-designed, modest-sized chapel for its community? (See Thomas Aquinas College for an excellent example.) After all, who in his right mind would donate even a dollar to a newly established university that appears to be blowing money like a drunken sailor? Three thousand tons of structural steel don’t come cheap.

Given the fact that Ave Maria touts its mission and its curriculum as being steeped in Catholic culture and tradition, its architecture (especially that of a sacred building) deserves to match that right-headed philosophy. Wouldn’t it make sense to patronize one of the architects who has been responsible for the recent renewal of sacred architecture in this country? Despite their major accomplishments in the design of beautiful Catholic churches, architects such as Duncan Stroik, , Dino Marcantonio, and weren’t even as much as invited to compete for this project. Two of these men also have campus chapels on their list of credits. Stroik is responsible for the Thomas Aquinas College’s beautiful new chapel and Thomas Gordon Smith designed the seminary for the Fraternity of St. Peter in Denton, Nebraska. Due in no small part to these talented Catholic architects, many are waking up to the fact that the churches designed and built in the latter half of the twentieth century have miserably failed the Catholic people. Why then settle for an ugly Goliath of a structure that will look dated even before it’s 3,000 tons of structural steel are sheathed in hothouse glass?

A suggestion to Ave Maria: This proposed chapel design is an error so egregious that it requires immediate attention. Dump these hideous plans. Hire a new architect, and start afresh, this time with an eye toward creating a beautiful house of God rather than simply an enormous one. (See my book for a few pointers.) Otherwise your school risks losing its hard-earned credibility. Your university is a promising one. Don’t mar your reputation with such an impractical eyesore.

Michael S. Rose is the author a several books including on church architecture including Ugly As Sin. His forthcoming book In Tiers of Glory: A History of Catholic Church Architecture in 100 Pages is due out in November. He is editor of

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Photo: M.S. Rose

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