Secret Spot: The Hidden Chapel of Mies van der Rohe

Carr Chapel by Mies van der Rohe

If you want to see the work of iconic German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, you don’t have to look far in Chicago. You can thank Mies for many of those minimal, industrial, steel and glass structures around town designed in the International Style. In fact, Mies designed the entire Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) campus in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Yet just blocks from van der Rohe’s favorite building on campus, the renowned Crown Hall, is one of his least known, yet most unique designs.

The God Box

You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but IIT is home to the only structure built by Mies for religious services. The Robert F. Carr Memorial Chapel of St. Savior was built in 1952 and named for the Dearborn Chemical president and Episcopal fundraiser. The chapel earned the nickname “the God box” around campus, due to its unassuming design.

Although the chapel was funded by the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, it is non-denominational. Both individuals and groups of all faiths are welcome to use the chapel for meetings, services, meditation, and even weddings.

Mies sketched several ideas for the original plan of two buildings. The chapel was to be joined by a parish house containing a chaplain’s quarters, a meeting room, and administrative office. Yet only the chapel was built.

“The chapel and the heating plant are almost indistinguishable.”
– Paula Dietz, New York Times

Carr Chapel at IIT

Noble Simplicity

Less was indeed more for this project, especially due to the tight budget Mies was given by the diocese. You’ll see no gargoyles or bell towers as you approach the chapel’s east-facing front door. From this indirect approach, visitors may think they’re headed to a utility building.

The squat brick structure is the only masonry work Mies built outside of Europe. A steel frame rests on top of the brick. The front and back sides of the building feature glass windows while the north and south brick walls are windowless.

The chapel’s sparse interior allows its few details to stand out. The eye traces the dark terrazzo tile floor up to the sturdy marble alter and then to a grid of steel beams along the ceiling. You won’t see any mechanical air system cluttering up the room, as the chapel is heated by a hydronic radiant floor system (and radiators).

Carr Chapel is intended to be modular, based on the users’ needs. Rather than fixed pews, simple black chairs can be rearranged as needed. Warmly colored drapes behind the sturdy marble altar may be moved to cover up the minimal steel cross on display.

“But in its simplicity it is not primitive, but noble,
and in its smallness it is great, in fact, monumental.”
– Mies van der Rohe

Finding Oneself

This architectural landmark is looking better than ever thanks to a $1 million restoration implemented from 2008 to 2013. Funded by the Mies van der Rohe Society, the restoration repaired the leaking roof, cracked bricks, water stains and more.

Harboe Architecture created a hidden roof-edge and drain to channel rainwater and used bricks at nearby Bailey Hall to replace deteriorated bricks at the chapel. Harboe was recognized with an award for preservation and restoration by the Architecture Institute of America Illinois for enhancing the natural and built environment on the project.

“But this modestly scaled room, as Mies so precisely put it,
gives the visitor ‘the hope of finding oneself.'”
– Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune

In deviating from conventional religious architecture, Mies created a Modern masterpiece rooted in simplicity of form and function. The next time you’re in Bronzeville, take refuge from the bustling campus and roaring Green Line train inside Carr Chapel and see what you find.

Carr Chapel at IIT

Robert F. Carr Memorial Chapel of St. Savior
65 E. 32nd St.
Chicago, IL 60616