Virginia’s Chapel to a Beloved Bishop

General / People / Places / January 30, 2013

The assignment must have seemed modest and breathtaking all at once:

Design a tiny chapel on 72-acres of tumbling hills overlooking the James River at Roslyn, the retreat center for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.  And be sure it honors Peter Lee, the outgoing bishop, and his penchant for Carpenter Gothic design.

There’s no other chapel or church on the site in Richmond’s West End – only a campus of small structures designed to accommodate the retreat’s mission.

“After two months of looking at photography, topographical maps and site sections, we selected a site that feels like it’s perched on the edge of the earth,” says Tut Bartzen, partner in Bartzen + Ball Architects in Richmond.  “It’s able to be part of the center of campus and part of the distant landscape too.”

The 3,780 square-foot chapel can be seen from the Willey Bridge a few miles away as commuters make their daily trek, south to north into the city.  And as visitors approach Roslyn from River Road, it reveals itself in a glimpse that’s then obscured by a hill, and finally as a transparent view through glass at either end.

The idea is to use clarity to express the site. “From hearing the bishop talk, we got the idea that it would be okay to be open,” he says.  “So we used clear glass for a vista to the landscape behind the altar.”

Its footprint is 26 feet by 50 – with a basement below the sanctuary that rises sharply into the sky.  Its verticality is scaled back by the warmth and intimacy of the materials used – cypress on the exterior, and cherry-stained pine, Douglas fir and poplar inside.  Even its minimal, light-steel frame and tension rods are muted in a matte-black paint to minimize their visual impact.

It does have precedents, including one Carpenter Gothic church in rural Rapidan, Va.  But there are more.  “I’d be lying if I didn’t say Fay Jones, particularly in the way we treated the wood,” he says.

Still, this chapel holds its own, day and night.  The architects dedicated it to daylighting, with a minimal amount of fixtures mounted atop wood beams inside.  They throw their light upon the ceiling without revealing their location.  And at night, they provide a symbolic point of illumination for this bishop’s chapel.

“It’s like a glowing lantern,” he says.

For more on Roslyn, go to

For more on Bartzen + Ball, go to

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Michael Welton
I write about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. I am the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand" (Routledge, 2015), and the former architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

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on January 30, 2013

Beautiful ! – it’s amazing that all complexity that goes in the planning, designing and building something like this results in something so peaceful and reflecting of the nature around it.

on February 1, 2013

Certainly one of Richmond’s best recent buildings, more images and drawings are featured here on vaMODERN.

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