As an ecclesiastical architect by specialty, Duncan Stroik had no objection to giving the folks at Thomas Aquinas College, just northwest of Los Angeles, everything they wanted for their magnificent new chapel. The wish list: “Elements of Romanesque and the Spanish Mission tradition in California,” says Stroik. “The really interesting kicker was, they liked the idea of an Early Christian basilica, with columns and arches. And then they wanted the cruciform.” And a Renaissance dome. “I said, ‘Oh, my goodness. That’s never been done—or hasn’t been done much,” Stroik recalls.
Fitting all the forms together logically and structurally would take some invention. Early Christian basilicas have one long nave and an apse, and are seldom cruciform. A dome is heavy for the columns and arches of a basilica, and it really calls for a vaulted nave. There also was a tower to consider. The result of all this mutual inclusion is a convention-bending building dressed in a painstakingly crafted traditional guise. From the façades alone, covered in white cement stucco beneath terra-cotta tile roofs, the chapel might be a well-restored house of worship from California’s early days, but in higher style. Close inspection, though, reveals carefully massed and stepped volumes of disparate origins that fit together like a puzzle.
On the outside, the chapel faces a green lawn with arcades that extend off to small pavilions, a kind of “Spanish version of the University of Virginia,” Stroik says. It all makes for a sublime juxtaposition against the green hills behind the chapel.
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