For nearly six decades, since Helen Hills Hills Chapel first opened its doors to the campus community, the facility has served as the college’s religious and spiritual center, accommodating a growing diversity of affiliations and manners of prayer and worship in the building’s sanctuary, the main floor meeting space.
Pews that have provided seating for services in the Helen Hills Hills Chapel Sanctuary since 1955, are being removed this week.
But as the historic chapel’s use and programming have broadened along with the college community’s changing spiritual demographics, its original interior layout, with a conventional structure of church pews, has become obsolete.
“The chapel was built in 1955 in the style of a New England congregational meeting house,” explained Jennifer Walters, dean of religious life. “It best suited traditional Protestant Christian worship. It wasn’t designed back then to accommodate all varieties of religion.”
This week, in order to adapt the chapel’s sanctuary for more flexible use, a redesign of the interior space has begun with the removal of all the original pews.
The pews, which were arranged in two identical sections of 16 rows, were designed to seat more than 350 worshipers in the chapel sanctuary. But increasingly in recent decades, as groups have sought space for their respective worship services and other activities, the fixed pews have become an obstacle to flexibility.
“This is not just a Sunday morning space,” said Walters. “We have students in the chapel all day long now”—not only using the sanctuary, but also the building’s downstairs spaces, such as the Bodman Lounge, Blue Room (reserved for meditation and prayer) and a study lounge. “We’re finding that if there is flexible space here, students are finding ways to use it.”
The pews, which are each 19 feet long, and constructed in one piece, are being delivered to a company that will seek ways to reuse them, said Walters.
Instead of pews, the sanctuary will have 300 custom-made oak chairs that can be laid out in several configurations. While the sanctuary will continue to accommodate traditional Christian and Jewish services, as well as weddings and funerals, as it always has, it will now also be appropriate for Muslim prayer, for example, and a wide range of events, such as walking meditation, concerts and interactive meetings with attendees seated in a circle.
“Everything that happened there before will continue,” emphasizes Walters. “But now we can do more with and for our community.”
In addition to the flexible seating, a wood floor will be laid in the sanctuary, replacing the linoleum tile floor.
The removal of chapel pews at Smith follows a nationwide trend in recent decades at college and university chapels, said Walters, who has eyed such a change since arriving on campus in 2001.
“The idea of hospitality is very important to us at the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life,” she said, “so our objective is to have the flexibility of responsiveness to students’ needs. Our mission is to be inclusive, to allow open-ended programming and to be open to new populations. We’re excited about the possibilities.”
The removal of pews and the new floor in the chapel sanctuary are funded by a gift from the Bodman family. The Helen Hills Hills Chapel stands where the Bodman family home stood in the 1800s.
The chapel will host an opening celebration for the new space in the spring, Walters said.