Duke Chapel Woodwork Restoration Earns Award

Faith & Form magazine honors effort that went into conserving 80-year old oak pieces

Restoration work is done to the wood carvings in Duke University Chapel.
Michael Stewart of The Century Guild restores some of the wood carvings in Duke University Chapel. Photo courtesy of Ray Walker.

Few people see the ornate interior of Duke University Chapel as often as Duke Associate Dean for Religious Life Christy Lohr Sapp. Her office is in the basement of the iconic building at the center of campus and she never misses an opportunity to walk through its soaring, stained-glass lit nave.

But in May of 2016, when she got a look at the chapel for the first time after it was closed for a $19.2 million, year-long restoration project, she recalls being awestruck by how beautiful it was.

She distinctly remembers marveling at the wood that rises at the front of the chapel.

Jim Mette of The Century Guild works on restoring some of the intricate wood work in Duke University Chapel. Photo courtesy of Ray Walker.The oak chancel, which surrounds the altar and is covered in detailed carvings, was a warmer, richer color. Gone was the dullness from decades of exposure.

“When I thought about all the nooks and crannies – this is intricate, ornate wood – it hit me what a massive undertaking it was to restore it,” Lohr Sapp said.

That undertaking was recently awarded top honors by Faith & Form magazine for Liturgical Furnishings. The judges in the magazine’s international competition praised the work’s balance of refreshing the wood while keeping its original feel.

“This was not a renovation, this was a restoration,” said Ray Walker, staff architect with Duke Facilities Management who oversaw the restoration project. “We had to repair and clean up the existing space. It should not look different. It just needed to look fresh and clean and bright again.”

The job of restoring the wood was given to The Century Guild, an Alamance County furniture company which had done work in the chapel in the past.

“Once we got over the initial trepidations over the scale, the biggest challenge was attempting to preserve the character of the wood without making it look like it had been redone,” said Nick Strange, founder of The Century Guild.

The Century Guild began working on the original 120 pews – five at a time – 18 months before the chapel was closed. That work allowed Strange and his colleagues to understand the wood’s unique properties.

When Duke Chapel was built in the early 1930s, the wood was artificially aged – in some instances by blasting it with crushed walnut shells – in order to look at home in the gothic revival building. But 80 years – and in some hard-to-reach places, a quarter-inch of dust – left the wood dry, pale and brittle.

Working on towers of scaffolding, Strange and his team repaired thousands of carvings and gave the wood a deep clean with multiple coats of gentle varnish and a light protective seal. He estimates that each inch of the wood was rubbed by hand six-to-eight times.

“It’s easy to send something out and put on a new finish, and in many cases, that’s a more efficient process,” Strange said. “But you lose so much of the character of a piece when you do that.”

Two years after the project was completed, Lohr Sapp said it’s changed the way many experience the chapel.

“We’ve encouraged them to come up into the chancel and look at the wood,” Lohr Sapp said. “It’s really fun to see people’s enthusiasm.”