Virginia Theological Seminary, City Hall negotiate future of fire-ravaged chapel

Virginia Theological Seminary, City Hall negotiate future of fire-ravaged chapel
A rendering of the new Immanuel Chapel, expected to cost $13 million, as it would look from Seminary Road.(VTS)

Virginia Theological Seminary staff hopes plans to erect a new house of worship while rehabilitating their historic, fire-ravaged chapel as a prayer garden, will meet city approval.

A fire destroyed the Immanuel Chapel, nestled between other historic buildings on VTS’s Seminary Road campus, in the fall of 2010. Though firefighters eventually succeeded in squelching the blaze, flames consumed the roof and devastated the chapel’s interior.

VTS officials vowed to rebuild as smoke still rose from the charred remnants. They unveiled a $13 million proposal for a new chapel on February 16 along with a capital fundraising campaign, simultaneously announcing a “quiet” effort already had raised about $10.9 million.

The new redbrick building would sit slightly to the south and west of its fire-damaged predecessor, seat a little more than 400 people during large events, includes a nursery for student’s children and create an impressive view from nearby Seminary Road.

A fire destroyed Immanuel Chapel in the Fall of 2010. (File photo)

“It’s a very imaginative design that will serve the seminary well for the next several hundred years,” said Rev. Ian Markham, the school’s dean.

Officials also proposed turning the remnants of the older chapel into a prayer garden. Once the walls are stabilized, the open-air interior space will host plaques, interred ashes and be home to outdoor ceremonies.

But the plans must meet the board of architectural review’s muster. Early talk of demolishing the charred structure met with BAR opposition and the idea of a prayer garden grew out of efforts to reach a compromise.

The largest hurdle for the seminary is securing the remaining walls. They hope to receive approval to stabilize and retain some of the masonry at a cost of about $877,000, Markham said. To do the same for the entire structure would run the seminary upwards of $2 million – resources he believes would be better spent elsewhere.

Charged with preserving Alexandria’s history, the BAR does not take financial implications into account in its decisions.

Al Cox, Alexandria’s preservationist, believes the BAR and seminary can reach an appropriate compromise. Officials with both groups have been meeting for months to reach a design plan congruent with both of their charges.

“The board has been bending over backward to respect the needs and the goals of the seminary and seminary is trying to respect the board’s charge and authority,” Cox said. “I do think [the project] is a good example of a different way to experience preservation in Alexandria. You don’t have to restore it and have it try and be what it was before if what it was before doesn’t serve you today. Preservation is not supposed to be putting things under a bell jar. We’re not a museum; we’re a living city.”

Construction will begin as soon as the money is raised, pending BAR approval, Markham said.