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—and we tried to look at where it came from in Spain,” says Stroik, who is based in South Bend, Ind. “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.
His clients, a group of men who founded the college in 1971, wanted all the great Western religious architecture in one building, he explains: “They thought that was the most conservative thing they could do.”
No pun intended, but there is a spiritual reason behind the composite approach to the 14,000-square-foot chapel. Thomas Aquinas is a four-year coeducational college with a Catholic “great books” curriculum, similar to the secular St. John’s College in Maryland and New Mexico. As Peter DeLuca, a founder of the school and its treasurer, who has been serving as interim president, explains, “We’re aiming at an education that’s essentially theological, aimed at knowing things that are worth knowing for their own sake.” The school’s board of governors wanted a chapel for daily worship—Mass is held four times a day—that showed a similar tradition in architecture.
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 (see Toolbox, below). 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.
In refining the puzzle’s pieces, Stroik garnished ideas for the chapel from several precedents, some of them European masterpieces. But a couple of his favorites are not far away in California: St. Vincent DePaul Church in Los Angeles from the 1920s, with its “over-the-top” Churrigueresque ornament and asymmetrically placed tower designed by Albert C. Martin Sr.; and the 1927 Pasadena City Hall by Bakewell and Brown of San Francisco. “It’s not a church, but it’s got a dome, the scalloped tile, and it’s concrete,” he says.
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. Then you enter and behold an interior where the design’s restraint and refinement amplify each other. “[Even] if you’re an atheist,” DeLuca says, “when you go into it, you feel reverent.”
Client Thomas Aquinas College,
Santa Paula, Calif.—Dr. Thomas Dillon (former president); Peter DeLuca (interim president and treasurer)
Owner’s Representative Stegemen and Kastner—Randy Fulton (project manager)
Designer Duncan G. Stroik Architect, South Bend, Ind.—Duncan Stroik (principal); Stefan Molina (designer); Tony Bajuyo (construction administrator)
Architect of Record Rasmussen and Associates, Ventura, Calif.—Scott Boydstun (principal); Jim Hanafin (project architect)
General Contractor HMH Construction
Structural Engineers Brandow & Johnston
Civil Engineers Jensen Design & Survey
Mechanical Engineers Nibecker & Associates
Lighting Consultant George Sexton Associates
Acoustician Ewart Wetherill Acoustics
Sound System Shen Milsom & Wilke
Size 14,000 square feet
Cost $23 million
In this edition of Toolbox, we focus on aspects of the craftwork employed at the chapel of Thomas Aquinas College:
In the chapel’s nave are 20 freestanding columns, each 13 feet high, from which arches spring to support the vaulted clerestories. Each column rests on a 10.25-inch-high base of white Apuano marble. The shafts are Botticino marble cut from blocks and turned on a lathe by Savema Marble in Pietrasanta, Italy (www.savema.com). Nine-inch-diameter cavities were drilled into the shafts to slide over circular steel columns that support the clerestory, necessary to meet seismic codes.
A great amount of ornamental plaster designed by the architect was fabricated by EverGreene Studios (evergreene.com) for Corinthian column capitals, entablatures, arches, loggia bas reliefs, and the likeness of the Madonna above the doorway in the nave. EverGreene also furnished faux marble for the tondi in the dome’s pendentives and in shrines in the two transepts, as well as original paintings taken from historical examples.
On either side of the entrance to the chapel are Carrara marble statues. To the left of the door when entering is a bearded figure of St. Augustine; to the right is the college’s namesake, St. Thomas Aquinas. Atop the pediment above the entrance is an 8-foot figure of Mary. Clay models for these statues were carved by Italian sculptor Giancarlo Burati, and the final figures were carved in marble by Cervietti Studio in Pietrasanta, Italy.
The baldachino, an elaborate 34-foot-high canopy over the altar, was made by the liturgical arts company Talleres de Arte, in Madrid, Spain (artegranda.com). Its Solomonic columns are hollow bronze shafts fabricated in a lost-wax method, with a separate steel frame inside. The canopy and statues are made
of painted and gilded wood.
On the façade are numerous Indiana limestone details and ornaments, including engaged fluted and spiral-fluted Ionic columns measuring 22 feet high; Corinthian pilasters measuring 18 feet high; inscribed friezes; and bas reliefs bearing the college’s coat of arms, flanked by large angels. All limestone details were designed by the architect at full or half scale and hand-carved by craftspeople at Bybee Stone Co., of Ellettsville, Ind. (bybeestone.com)
The structure of the chapel’s dome is made of curved steel beams set on a masonry base. Outside are custom-made scalloped terra-cotta tiles made by Boston Valley Terra Cotta in Orchard Park, N.Y. (terraclad.com/bvtc). There are 38 sizes of tile on the dome; they become narrower toward the dome’s center, though their 16-inch length remains constant.