“Today when many of us look at the world and wonder what is going to happen next, it is more important than ever that we have a workable religion, such as can come from prayer and meditation in this sanctuary.”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech to 4,000 people at the Nov. 1, 1939, dedication of the Little Chapel-in-the-Woods at Texas State College for Women, now Texas Woman’s University, aired live on WFAA radio.
Roosevelt, who visited her son living near Denton, wrote in her “My Day” column that the chapel had an atmosphere of peace despite the large crowd.
O’Neil Ford, who grew up in Denton, and Arch Swank won a competition to design the chapel. Regional building materials defined a new Southwestern style featuring beautiful, structural parabolic arches and stone quarried in Bridgeport. The project launched both men’s careers. Ford is widely considered Texas’ greatest architect. He’s the only person ever named a National Historic Landmark by the National Commission on the Arts.
Dream becomes reality
President Franklin Roosevelt signed a National Youth Administration grant authorizing Texas NYA Director J.C. Kellam to supervise 300 boys to construct the chapel. W.R. Nicholson, the father of three TSC graduates, capped the long fundraising campaign with a $15,000 donation to build the $29,000 structure.
Students and townspeople braved chilling winds for the chapel’s groundbreaking on Jan. 27, 1939. TSC President D.L. Hubbard served as master of ceremonies, saying “through this cooperation it has become possible for us to make this long dream a reality.” Ford also said the chapel was “one of the finest examples anywhere of cooperation of all concerned.”
Esther Webb was so anxious to be the first bride that she took her vows in the unfinished chapel on Sept. 25, 1939. Three other couples followed before the chapel’s completion. An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 couples have married in the chapel; it’s consistently recognized as a favorite wedding venue.
Work continued on the chapel’s interior for almost two years after the dedication. In the fall of 1940, 10 stained-glass windows illustrating women ministering to human needs were meticulously finished by the college’s advanced art history class. Famous women depicted in the windows included dancers Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Ruth St. Denis; nurse Florence Nightingale, scientist Marie Curie, and teacher Annie Sullivan with student Helen Keller.
Denton residents posed for the windows. Recent TSC graduate Mary Beth Thomas posed with her infant daughter for the window depicting motherhood, behind the altar. Other models included Nancy Jane Gates, Jessie McCullar, and Dr. and Mrs. Madison Marshall and son Billie.
Students carefully chose quotations for the windows. Marie Curie’s quote was “Life is not easy, but what of that. We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.” Students posed for the stylized laboratory technician image.
The organ was installed in November 1940.
In January 1941, art student Billie Marie Culwell hand-carved the biblical inscription “My House is a House of Prayer” on the narthex beam. Nora Mae Pierce added gold leaf. The two women finished the carving in the fall 1940, directed by professor Dorothy LaSelle. Other students who worked on the chapel included Ivy May Choller, Mary Ann Chadick, Eloise Carriker, Carmeta Drummond, Beatrice Paschall, Sammy Tate, Helen Solberg and about 500 others.
Ford’s organic aesthetic called for natural materials. Plain bricks and an unpainted redwood ceiling emphasized natural colors and textures. The beechwood pulpit and pews were clear-coated. Brass trim and light fixtures contrasted with mahogany and redwood.
Only flowers that grow in this area were depicted in the stained glass. Yuccas bordering one window symbolize women’s vitality.
Old buildings are sometimes left to fall into disrepair. But at TWU, the university restored the chapel in 1989, returning the stained glass to its original vibrancy. The dedication window in the narthex was intentionally left untouched to show the original state.
The Texas Society of Architects voted TWU’s Little Chapel-in-the-Woods one of 20 buildings representing “Texas’ Proudest Architectural Achievements of All Time” in 1983. Texas Monthly named it one of the top 10 buildings in the state in 2009. The Little Chapel is open for public viewing from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, except during scheduled events.