Retro: The Chapel's Secret Room

Few get to visit this space in the chapel tower
May 1, 2015

Each spring, seniors are given the opportunity to climb to the top of the chapel tower and take in the stunning views. Within the tower are the carillon bells that ring each day at 5 p.m., as well as during university ceremonies. The chapel is perhaps Duke’s best-known building. But what is not well known is that a rarely visited room lies beneath the carillon level, about halfway up the tower.

The octagonal stone room has a high ceiling, perhaps twenty feet tall, and views of the campus through narrow windows. There are few objects in the room, but the walls are embedded with several special stones removed from other buildings. One stone is etched “Trinity College / Founded 1859 / Removed 1891.” Whether this stone was in an original Trinity College building in Randolph County is not clear—cornerstones aren’t typically carved in anticipation of an end date. We do know, however, that this stone originally was installed in the Washington Duke building, the major campus building at Trinity College when it opened in Durham.

Interestingly, 1891 was meant to be the year of the opening, but because of the structural failure and collapse of the building, the move had to be delayed until 1892. The Washington Duke Building also contained the Trinity College bell, which had been transported to Durham from Randolph County. When the Washington Duke building burned in 1912, neither the bell nor the stone had a logical home until they were both placed in the chapel tower room. The bell has since been relocated to the Bell Tower dormitory on East Campus.

The room also contains two slab-type stones that were removed from Craven Memorial Hall, one of the original East Campus buildings. Craven was torn down in the mid-1920s, but these large slabs specify the building committee, architect, and builder, as well as proclaiming that the building was “erected to the memory of Braxton Craven, D.D., LL.D., Founder of Trinity College, under the auspices of the Alumni Association.”

There is little documentation as to how the room might be used, other than as a sort of vault for historical artifacts— there is no mention of it in the Chapel Dedication program. It was used only for general storage for many years after the chapel was completed in 1932. But, in 1967, the Services Committee of the Duke YMCA, headed by Murray Brown ’69, set up a miniature history museum in the space. Cases in the room contained historic correspondence, photographs, and other materials related to Duke history. The museum was open only on Saturdays and Monday afternoons.

The room, which has no climate control for hot or cold weather, was not ideal for storing archival items. Whether through lack of interest, lack of access, or perhaps the establishment of the University Archives in 1972, the room ceased being used as a history museum in the mid-1970s and has been mostly empty since then. Today, it is still accessible only through the tiny elevator and spiral staircase that provide access to the chapel tower. This curious room—a reminder that our long North Carolina roots stretch back to Randolph County—is a special treat for a few lucky visitors each year.

Valerie Gillispie is the university archivist.