Grace in Built Form
  • Thursday, September 6, 2012

An interview with Duo Dickinson, Architect
By Richard J. Mammana, Jr.

Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, Connecticut, grew out of a late 19th-century “fresh air” ministry of the Church of the Incarnation, Manhattan. From its beginnings in the summer of 1886 in a rented farmhouse on Mohegan Lake, New York, it served the children of recent immigrants, affording them an opportunity to experience rural American life. Incarnation moved to Ivoryton in 1929 and its ministry has now flourished through three centuries. Today, Incarnation Center offers conference facilities all year long, a traditional summer camp supported by the Diocese of New York and parishes in the Diocese of Connecticut, Elderhostel activities, and a wide range of year-round nature programs on a wooded property close to the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound.

The most recent chapter in the life of Incarnation Center began with the consecration on June 9 of a new chapel, designed in its architect’s words to be “large enough to create a place for everyone at camp and visiting groups to assemble, sing, and perform in a variety of expressions.” It seats up to 320 children or 240 adults, and embraces an impressive 2,300 square feet on the shore of Lake Mohegan.

The construction phase, from groundbreaking to consecration, took just three months in early 2012, allowing for use of the chapel throughout this year’s peak camping season. All engineering and design services were donated.

I spoke recently with award-winning architect Duo Dickinson — a camper at Incarnation in 1964 and 1965 — about his work on this project. Dickinson, properties chair at Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven, began his own architectural practice in 1987. The New York Times has described his building and design philosophy in succinct terms: “Design it small, make it as beautiful as possible and practice every trick in the book to keep it as cheap as possible.” Dickinson is a regular newspaper columnist, lecturer, and blogger on architectural matters. His most recent book is Staying Put: Remodel Your House To Get the Home You Want (Taunton Press, 2011).

How does your new design relate to the previous chapel?
The new chapel replaces a structure built well over 50 years ago and refurbished 20 years ago. Rather than ignoring the legacy of the original chapel, the design incorporates the original sign and cross, but most significantly, the exact shape of the original chapel is replicated as the central crowning roof form. The earlier chapel measured 600 square feet, so the new chapel is almost four times the size. The altar area/deck is an additional 450 square feet.

You have mentioned that you drew inspiration for the new chapel from barn design.
The trusses are field-ganged rot-proof stock dimensional lumber yellow pine, and thus have the raw and rough-hewn sensibility of a barn. The angled shrouds that protect the interior steel columns from the weather are wrought of the same material. Just like a barn, there will be some warping, checking and rough edges. But also like a barn the new chapel is comfortable in its own skin, and engineered to weather well over the long term.

What made the chapel design and construction process different from your work for non-religious clients?
I have designed about 500 homes for private clients over the last 30 years, but from the start at least 20 percent of the work of our firm has been dedicated to pro bono or at-cost work for not-for-profits, so the budget constraints presented by this project were familiar. With a tight budget of $180,000, our single goal was to accommodate the entire sleep-away camp population under one roof for worship at the same time. Paul Torcellini of Waverly Construction, Scott Erricson of E2 engineers, and my office spent the better part of a year in permitting, budgeting, and planning to make this process come together in the nick of time within the specified budget. For me, the result was a vibrant and expressive wood-wrought celebration of the site, the camp, and of the Holy Spirit.

What about other factors in design that would set a chapel for campers apart from other building projects?
My personal history of learning to canoe and camp here almost 50 years ago, and having designed about a dozen other projects at Incarnation over the last 25 years, as well as sitting on its board, created a host of intermingling imperatives. It was very important to me to have specifications for this project that required “zero maintenance” for the staff of the center going forward. This means the structure will resist the ravages of weather, rust, graffiti, and regular wear from use. But I also wanted to convey in built form the deep sense of grace I feel every day of my life. That sense informs everything I design, but overtly so here.

How was this project important to you as a Christian and as someone whose spiritual life was formed in the camp chapel?
All of our pro bono work serves as an acknowledgment that everything we have has been given to us. If what I have to offer leverages a greater good then my indebtedness creates abundance. The abundance provided by a dedicated camp staff, a generous group of donors of treasure and talent, and, most importantly, the grace of God that passes all understanding created the miracle by the lake that is the new Chapel of the Incarnation.

What kind of longevity do you envision for the new chapel?
We sought to design this as a zero maintenance facility: every surface can be sanded back to its base condition, and every piece of metal is stainless. Scott Erricson’s structural design resists hurricane-force winds and heavy snows. Although “light” in countenance, this building aims to be around for the long haul.

Have you heard anything from campers or other worshipers in this first season of the chapel’s use? What do they think of it?
I have witnessed it. We need to add 10 more pews (all under the roof line) because they adore the space. The first wedding is in September of two camp alums. One more reason for belief in a higher power is that the acoustics, completely undesigned, are remarkable. Beyond the new pews, permanent lighting will be provided once funds are secured, and we hope to build a “sacristy shed” as well.

Richard J. Mammana, Jr., a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School, is founder and director of Project Canterbury.

Grace in Built Form

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