The South's Most Beautiful Chapels
These sanctuaries for worship and reflection are also stunning examples of Southern architecture.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel
If you’re familiar with just one American architect, it is probably Frank Lloyd Wright. With an incredible career that spanned over 70 years, Wright designed some of the most iconic structures in the world. Florida Southern College (FSC) can claim the largest collection of his architecture found anywhere, all within the bounds of its campus. Among the 12 structures that were touted as the “college of tomorrow,” the historic Annie Pfeiffer Chapel was completed first, in 1941. Still a large part of collegiate life at FSC, this bold construction of geometric shapes (linked to an equally expressive covered walkway called the Esplanade) is the spiritual center of the campus. The chapel’s noteworthy features include “textile blocks”—concrete blocks embedded with small squares of stained glass that fill the complex with patches of color.
Chapel of the Apostles (Seminary Chapel)
Nestled within the scenic mountains of the Cumberland Plateau lies The University of the South (also known as “Sewanee”). Acclaimed for its architecture, as well as its School of Theology, this Episcopal-affiliated college is home to the Chapel of the Apostles, a masterwork by the firm of the late E. Fay Jones and Maurice J. Jennings. Dedicated in 2000 as the college’s center of seminary life, the chapel is configured with a traditional narthex, nave, and chancel, along with an organ loft and sacristy. But that’s where any semblance of conventional design stops. Through its creative interplay of cross-bracing trusses and sheets of geometrically shaped glass, this intricate structure calls to mind a multifaceted diamond. It’s as welcoming as it is majestic.
The Chapel at Seaside
Seaside, founded in 1981 and prudently planned in the spirit of an old-fashioned beach town, is known for its wood-framed cottages, bungalows, and charming shops. This is the kind of pedestrian-friendly place where front-porch gatherings are an everyday occurrence. Resonating with this welcoming tone, The Chapel at Seaside claims the distinction of being the beach town’s tallest building, with a striking bell tower that’s as sculptural as it is functional. Other elements, like its board-and-batten siding, heart-pine floors, and steeply pitched gables that resemble classically detailed pediments, work in concert with the rest of the community. Designed by architect Scott Merrill, this iconic coastal sanctuary was completed in 2001.
Chapel of Thanksgiving
Resembling a giant spiral seashell and standing 90 feet tall, Dallas’ Chapel of Thanksgiving is only part of a large urban park and facilities dedicated to the spiritual diversity and freedoms that are at the core of American life. An elegant bridge that spans a cascading water feature leads to the entrance, which heightens the experience of this unusual structure. Its ascending, nautilus-shaped ceiling, highlighted by a band of stained glass panels called the Glory Window, draws the eye upward. Once inside, visitors are each encouraged to leave a personal statement of gratitude. Supplementary etched-glass windows and artwork, as well as an altar made from Carrara marble and a Texas red granite base, enhance this interfaith space, which was designed by American architect Philip Johnson.
The Charlotte F. Hedges Memorial Chapel at the Pine Mountain Settlement School
There are some places of worship and meditation that not only bring together people with shared beliefs but also seek to fulfill the overall needs of a community. The chapel at the Pine Mountain Settlement School (PMSS) is a prime example. Deeply concerned about the preservation of culture in Kentucky’s remote Appalachian regions, particularly Harlan County, along with the lack of education available to the people who lived there, philanthropist William Creech Sr. (along with his wife, Sally) donated land over a century ago to try to improve these conditions.
In time, PMSS witnessed the construction of schools, health-care and vocational facilities, a library, and other structures. The chapel, which was dedicated in 1924 to honor benefactor Charlotte F. Hedges, became the religious center for the township. Designed by architect Mary Rockwell Hook, this warm yet understated sanctuary contains coursed stone walls and exposed timber rafters. A gracious stone arch separates the nave (main part of the chapel) from the altar. Another impressive feature is the sanctuary’s Holtkamp organ; its cascading rows of pipes serve as a fanciful pediment above the nave doors.
Christ Church Episcopal
Established in 1880 by English author Thomas Hughes as an experimental utopian colony, the town of Rugby was less successful than he had hoped. Roughly 50 years ago, in an attempt to prevent the place from becoming just another curious footnote in the state’s history, a group of residents, admirers, and descendants of former Rugby families started restoring and continuing Hughes’ initial design of the town. Among the Victorian-era structures still intact, Christ Church Episcopal has been home to a steady, active congregation since the late 1800s. Fashioned in the Carpenter Gothic style, this long-standing church continues to offer the community a beautiful place to worship.
Glenn Dale, MD
Whenever there’s a group of concerned citizens who show enough commitment and determination to save a cherished structure from the wrecking ball, we all feel inspired by them. The people who safeguarded Maryland’s Dorsey Chapel certainly are deserving of our gratitude. This Methodist chapel, which was erected in 1900 by the rural, African-American community of Brookland, quickly became a spiritual and social meeting place. It flourished for many years and brought people together in a spirit of fellowship. But eventually, the congregation began to dwindle, and the little church declined as well, so much so that it reached the point where it was slated for demolition in 1980. Even the thought of losing their beloved church was just not acceptable for some of the former members and local residents. They assembled the Friends of Dorsey Chapel and then worked together to preserve the building and make it a vital facility once again. By 1996, the Maryland chapel was rededicated and opened to the public as both a museum and a popular spot for weddings, recitals, and other small gatherings. The Friends of Dorsey Chapel saved a wonderful Southern treasure.
Duke University Chapel
Since its dedication in 1935, the Duke University Chapel has fulfilled its role, serving as the spiritual center of this renowned school. It’s one of the tallest, most impeccably constructed buildings in Durham. Designed by African-American architect Julian Abele, the chapel emulates the spectacular Gothic cathedrals of England, particularly with its series of pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and an ornate tower that rises 210 feet and has a 50-bell carillon. Finished in a volcanic rock that was quarried in nearby Hillsborough (and is appropriately known as “Hillsborough bluestone”), the edifice ranges in color from shades of slate gray to a distinctive rust hue. Images of prominent Christian and Southern American figures—including Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Thomas Jefferson—are carved into this material at the impressive entrance. Three pipe organs fill the cavernous chapel with glorious music.
Historic St. Luke’s Church
This National Historic Landmark is the oldest surviving church building in Virginia. Historic St. Luke’s Church currently occupies a 100-acre site, and it exemplifies the 17th-century Artisan Mannerism style, in which builders combined several different influences and features into a form that’s uniquely American. A lofty bell tower indicates the entrance to the church, which leads to a one-room sanctuary divided by a wooden chancel or “rood” screen. Supported with brick buttresses and an imposing end wall crowned with crenellations called “crowstepped gables,” the sanctuary is further embellished with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Stained glass windows from Germany, installed during the Victorian era, lend an ethereal glow to the interior. St. Luke’s was designated as a National Shrine in 1957 by President Dwight Eisenhower.
Ida Cason Callaway Memorial Chapel at Callaway Resort & Gardens
Pine Mountain, GA
Tucked into a picturesque region of western Georgia, Callaway Resort & Gardens has been a favorite destination for nature lovers and vacationers for 66 years. The resort’s two founders, Cason J. and Virginia Hand Callaway, first set aside this area of land to help preserve the native azaleas that grow in abundance here. Mr. Callaway also drew inspiration from the surrounding beauty when he commissioned a rustic chapel to be constructed in tribute to his mother. Known as the Ida Cason Callaway Memorial Chapel, the well-chosen assembly of fieldstone and arched wooden trusses rests along the edge of Falls Creek Lake. Shimmering stained glass windows, reminiscent of those found in much larger Gothic buildings, present abstract depictions of Southern pines and other native trees. Along with the lovely streams of light from these colorful panes, the chapel is frequently filled with the rich sounds of a custom-built Möller pipe organ.
Log Church at Heritage Farm
Part of an assembly of authentic structures that compose an entire frontier village, this rustic early 19th-century chapel originally sat in nearby Lincoln County, West Virginia. It was relocated to the village center in Huntington by Heritage Farm’s cofounders, Henriella and Mike Perry, to reflect the importance of faith to early settlers. True to its name, the Log Church consists of hand-hewn, notched timbers that are held together by chinking (a traditional method of applying plaster mixed with horse hair or hemp). Wall-mounted lanterns and vintage wooden pews that can seat approximately 80 visitors help reinforce its bygone appeal.
Martin Gatin’s Chapel at Honey Creek Woodlands
It’s refreshing to know that there are places devoted solely to serenity and inner reflection. Home to around 30 Cistercian monks (more commonly known as “Trappists”), the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, invites its visitors to enjoy its quiet solitude while observing the monks’ solemn commitment to monastic life. To encourage a closer bond with nature, they recently selected craftsman Clay Chapman and his firm to construct a new open-air chapel on the property. Chapman, who launched a building initiative called Hope for Architecture (HFA) in 2012, instinctively understood the Trappists’ desire for a straightforward yet elegant structure that would complement the grounds. Consisting of intricate timber trusses that are connected with wooden pegs, this “Woodland Chapel,” as it’s called, represents HFA’s principles of employing tried-and-true building methods and durable materials. Because walls composed entirely of brick are also Chapman’s specialty, he and his team completed the chapel with a wonderfully detailed bell tower.
May River Chapel in Palmetto Bluff
Amid sprawling live oaks draped with Spanish moss, the May River Chapel in Palmetto Bluff seems to be the handiwork of bygone craftsmen—but don’t let that facade fool you. Its charming Lowcountry appeal didn’t emerge from the past but rather from the drawing boards of Historical Concepts, a Georgia-based architecture firm skilled at creating wonderful structures with traditional details. The chapel, which shares its location with the ruins of a mansion built in 1910, has a series of Gothic-arched, triple-hung windows. When opened, they unite the sanctuary with the surrounding village green. For indoor seating, the pews were fashioned from refurbished antique heart pine that was reclaimed from a New York building destroyed by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Vintage-inspired lights that resemble gas lamps, along with a central window overlooking the May River, contribute to the historic character of this South Carolina sanctuary.
Mission San Francisco de la Espada
San Antonio, TX
One of four colonial Spanish religious outposts that make up San Antonio’s Mission Trail, the Mission San Francisco de la Espada has seen the region’s long transition from being New Spain to becoming modern-day Texas. Established in 1731, this self-sustaining community of Franciscan missionaries sought to convert the native population to Christianity while also teaching them skills, including farming, blacksmithing, and weaving. The mission’s other principle role in the area was to prevent foreign invaders (primarily the French) from advancing into its territory. Later, the site became a stronghold for the Texas army during the state’s struggle for independence from Mexico. Today, the mission’s remaining structures include a chapel, which is identified by an oversize facade that’s crowned with an espadaña (three-bell gable). A traditional technique of early Spanish construction, this assembly of elements makes the building appear much larger than it actually is. Other remnants of original features on the property, such as the granary and the missionary quarters, have also survived, along with the aqueduct and irrigation system. The mission is a beautiful and historic example of Spain’s influence on Texas culture.
Old Peace Chapel
Among the many structures dotting The Historic Daniel Boone Home at Lindenwood Park is an elegant Folk Victorian chapel flanked by two gazebos, visually linked by a white picket fence. The Old Peace Chapel dates to the 1800s and was relocated to the Boone site in 1983.
This house of worship is not a traditional church building—one with walls and a roof—but instead consists of a series of steel-frame uprights, solitary windows, and surrounds without doors. Named for the original 17th-century landowner, George Polegreen, these freestanding elements serve only as reminders of the size and layout of the structure that once stood here—it was destroyed during the Civil War. Fittingly called “the ghost church” by Mechanicsville locals, this virtual chapel symbolizes a significant piece of our nation’s religious heritage, for it was here in 1747 that colonists established a meetinghouse that was one of Virginia’s first non-Anglican churches. Now overseen by the Historic Polegreen Church Foundation, the location is a popular setting for weddings and summer concerts.
Prince George’s Chapel
A venerable survivor from our country’s colonial past, Prince George’s Chapel was originally named after the prince who became King George III of England (the one we fought against for our nation’s independence). Built in 1755, this Delaware landmark originated as an Anglican “chapel of ease,” which (as the term implies) signified that it was not the primary church for the area but rather one that outlying parishioners could reach more easily. Its unassuming exterior consists of shiplap siding and paneled shutters, but the chapel’s interior has wonderful woodwork along with vestiges of worship that are indicative of the time period. Elements like box pews and an elevated octagonal pulpit provide a unique glimpse of how our forefathers congregated for prayer and reflection. The barrel-vaulted ceiling is made of unfinished knotty pine, and balconies provide additional seating. All of these features continue to impress visitors who discover this sanctuary.
Formerly associated with a larger nearby monastery that was destroyed by fire in the early 1900s, this seemingly plain one-room house of prayer features a rustic stone exterior that gives little indication of the vibrant colors found inside. Virtually unknown beyond the limits of its Louisiana hometown, the Rock Chapel functioned as a retreat for the local Carmelite monks, who pieced it together in 1891 with stones and mud plaster. Inside, a simple altar and kneeling bench are just about all the freestanding pieces left. While visitors may pause for a moment of silence, they’re also bound to stand transfixed by the elaborate frescoes that cover the walls and ceiling. Painted by two French monks, these works of art are a powerful testimony to the faith of the humble brethren who dedicated their lives to a sacred calling.
Sheldon Church Ruins
Sheldon Church has seen more than its fair share of calamities over the years. Yet, as fate would have it, these terrible misfortunes have inadvertently contributed to the romantic character of the beloved South Carolina landmark. Regarded as one of the first American architectural imitations of a Greek temple, the structure was destroyed two times during its nearly 275-year history. It was burned during the Revolutionary War, then rebuilt, and finally dismantled following damage it suffered during the Civil War. Because the upper pediments and roof of the church were ruined, all that remains is a series of both freestanding and engaged columns, as well as the structure’s basic brick shell. Even so, the grandeur and artistry that once made this special Southern place an imposing house of worship are still evocative, and you can truly feel how the church used to be many years ago.
St. Mary’s Chapel at Laurel Hill Plantation
Situated on the grounds of Laurel Hill Plantation, which was destroyed by fire in the 1960s, this Gothic-inspired wonder (consecrated in 1839) is an exuberant array of spires, crenellated rooftops, and Medieval-style windows. The interior is a
bit more restrained, with a well-
worn, black-and-white checkered marble floor and old plastered walls that are bathed in sunlight from a stunning stained glass window.
Eureka Springs, AR
So delicately assembled that it seems to hover in midair, Thorncrown Chapel stands as architect E. Fay Jones’ masterpiece, as well as an awe-inspiring marvel to all those who visit. Jones took an idea that was envisioned by retired schoolteacher James Reed and developed it into a soaring structure of native flagstone, wood, and glass. The soothing rhythm of columns and trusses (which reach upward to 48 feet and were constructed from local pine) perfectly reflects the woodland setting. In fact, the distinction between the interior of the structure and the verdant surrounding forest is cleverly blurred. Thorncrown Chapel is the deserving recipient of numerous design awards. This breathtaking Ozark retreat continues to attract the faithful to its finely crafted doors, which first opened in 1980.
The Tuskegee University Chapel
Architecture students from far and wide—particularly those here and at nearby Auburn University—revere the unadorned serenity that defines The Tuskegee University Chapel. Strikingly modern for this Central Alabama community, the building was codesigned by renowned architect Paul Rudolph (an Auburn alumnus) and the firm of two former Tuskegee faculty members, John A. Welch and Louis Fry.
The highly innovative roof shape provides stellar acoustics that enhance the university’s famous Golden Voices Concert Choir. To provide natural light, a continuous ribbon of windows located along the edges of the roof casts a soft glow upon the structure’s brick enclosure, which contains no right angles. A stained glass creation known fondly as the “Singing Windows” graces the narthex, and it illustrates scenes from beloved spirituals and hymns. Completed in 1969, Tuskegee’s campus sanctuary continues to host worship services for students, convocations, and cultural events for the community.
Tygarts Valley Presbyterian Church
A picturesque example of the Victorian-Gothic style, Tygarts Valley Presbyterian Church could have been plucked out of a Currier & Ives print. Its tapered spire, which measures 105 feet, reaches to the sky as a bold acclamation of the ongoing faithfulness of this West Virginia congregation, which has dutifully maintained the house of worship since its dedication in 1883. Tygarts Valley Presbyterian was designed by the Philadelphia firm of Isaac Purcell. The handiwork of noted bridge builder Lemuel Chenoweth is evident throughout the structure, particularly in the loop-shaped trusses and wooden planks that compose the roof. Large Gothic-arched windows filled with rolled cathedral glass cast a dappled glow on the sanctuary.