The chapel on Duke University’s campus is a rarity in America–a true-to-form Gothic cathedral built in the resplendent manner of those spires and arches of Old Europe. Only a handful of American church buildings reach the grandeur of their European cousins–the Washington National Cathedral in DC, the unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, St. Patrick’s also in New York, and the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. Cathedral building was a deliberate enterprise in the Old World. Generations of nameless ancestors toiled to finish mere yards of the building in their lifetimes. They knew that history might not remember their names, but their deeds and the work of their hands, their effort would survive the millennia. In the US, the adolescent impatience of the new American gentry saw to it that cathedral building was done in mere decades. The Washington National Cathedral–the 10th largest in the world–was finished from cornerstone to finial in 90 years, and Duke University Chapel, in three.
While the American spirit has always been forward leaning, the reach back to pre-colonial building vocabularies is very rare. All of those aforementioned cathedrals share in common a similar starting date in construction–the years of the “Gilded Age” through the “Jazz Age.”–1880 to 1920. American wealth had come onto the world stage during that time, and its tycoons were looking to emulate those patrons of Europe’s old towns, using the ancient vocabulary of English Dukes and Earls to etch themselves into the ages. The Rockefellers and others would build their cathedrals ostensibly for the Glory of God, so long as they received a “modest” second billing.
Duke University Chapel has similar beginnings, as the apex of the Duke family legacy as chief benefactor to the then-named “Trinity College.” So generous were the descendents of George Washington Duke that the trustees of the University changed the name of the southern school to honor their patron family. Duke University Chapel would serve as a monument not only to the Church’s Methodist heritage, but also as a monument to the Duke family.
I am a sucker for college campuses. I was nostalgic for my universities before I even left them. At semester’s end, when my studies were done, I would turn to my universities’ libraries and pick through the rare and historical book stacks, looking at the old images in dusty centenary yearbooks. I would stick around my various campus apartments after my peers returned home, wandering those campuses in solitude, taking the pulse of the history around me. No longer a big man on campus, I am just an outsider looking in. However, when I travel and a campus is nearby, I throw on my most casual wear, a tattered baseball hat and for a moment, pretend to be in my 20’s again, taking in a college yard.
For this trip, I was in Raleigh, and I knew that Duke and her chapel were not far away. I had but an evening to spend in the Raleigh-Durham area, and felt that I couldn’t pass up a stroll around one of America’s most beautiful campuses. The whole of Duke’s campus is in the “collegiate Gothic” architectural style that can be found at colleges across America, although only Duke, Indiana and Princeton really mastered it. The tall vertical spire is placed at the highest point of Duke’s campus, providing the focal point of this university and an easy landmark to find while trying to find the campus without the use of some GPS gizmo.
At the time of my visit, students at Duke and across the nation were enthralled by art that was more horizontal. Tucker Max, the former Duke student who became the sage of the debauched, released his second book, “Assholes Finish First,” about the time I was in town. Max was the innovator of “fratire”–the definitive libertine or depraved par excellence of the 2000’s–and held more interest with the student body at this point in the Annals of Duke’s history. It is a rare talent–if one can call it that–who can raise smut writing and misogyny to a new offensive benchmark. Max somehow did it. A former Duke law student, he wrote in graphic detail of his years as a student by day and Lothario by night. And he wasn’t alone. In response, a co-ed kept her own exploits via a Powerpoint presentation that was leaked by peers, detailing her own conquests like a lab experiment. Despite the shadow of cathedral Gothic over the private dorms and quiet quarters, Duke’s students–or at least the most vocal of them–were followers of Bacchus.
Walking amid the cloistered quarters of the old campus, I am reminded of my own naivete when I first shuttled off to college years before, expecting that the halls of academia were for the monastical solely devoted to the liberal arts and cultivating the seedbed of inquiry. Duke’s students had other ideas about seedbeds, as do most who ply in the college humor trade. Duke’s grand campus is a homage to a long-lost era of learning–a time when a universities had honor codes and the deans could act in loco parentis–in the place of parents–on students’ social matters. American benefactors were trying to create little Oxfords all over the country. Those donors perhaps forgot that Oscar Wilde was a graduate of Oxford. Not even the granite could stand the erosive spray of effulgent cheap wit that comes with every wave of freshman. You might take me for a prude at this point, however, I do not seek a return to that Pollyannish era of honor codes and phony purity. How could anyone judge, when so many virile and nubile youth are sequestered behind glass and stone? To each his own.
Entering the Chapel, the vast maw of the nave opens before me, right to the grand alter in the cathedral choir. The soaring groin vault seems to have its own atmosphere at its height. I try to erase any ideas of Tucker defiling some conquest on the altar, and recalibrate for a moment. I know a few Duke grads and native sons, and many of them have fond memories of the time the spent in the Chapel, for services, commencement and classical music concerts. One friend took his commencement walk here in high school with the students processing to the only music that can really fill the vast interior choir and nave–Wagner. Other peers have sung Beethoven’s 9th, another earth-moving force of nature, within those limestone walls.
Of course, I can’t judge Tucker very harshly, as even the chapel was built on the back of older bad habits and sophomoric past times–the American tobacco obsession. The Duke family acumen took the winnings of their tobacco farms, produced Lucky Strike cigarettes and later diversified into to what is now Duke Energy. Now, one has to be careful to judge the Dukes–while tobacco use was an abomination to the temperance pushers–the Dukes did not know that tobacco was such an unhealthy habit. But I detect that this building may belie a slight remorse. While Methodist Episcopalian in belief, the Dukes seemed to carry the Catholic desire (or guilt?) for leaving good works behind–in this chapel. But when I turn the corner, I am disabused again. A side chapel serves as the Duke mausoleum. The Dukes are entombed under Michelangelo’s prized Carrera marble under effigies equal to the Renaissance master by Charles Keck.
I take a seat alone in the Chapel, looking around me, thinking of how under-used this old stone behemoth was in the center of campus. Perhaps the outsized presence of a holy place is the yin to the yang of the recent exploits and conquests of both sexes on campus. Clearly, the life of the campus was teaming elsewhere. All the students would pass from this chapel and through these cloisters into the world, already more worldly.