King’s Chapel

King’s Chapel, 1956

I am always inspired by the breathtaking view as I drive east on Highway 30 toward the quaint little town of Mt. Vernon, Iowa. There, on the hilltop overseeing Cornell College, is the massive, 130-foot tower of King’s Chapel.

The idea of building a chapel for Cornell College was proposed by the pastor of a local Methodist church to Cornell’s Board of Trustees in 1874. The board approved and immediately hired a Chicago-based architect to design it. Peculiarly absent at that time was William Fletcher King, President of Cornell College. He was on leave in Europe. Had he been present, the building may have never taken shape.

Bust of President William Fletcher King

Upon arrival, King was aghast at the elaborate and expensive building plans and the complete lack of funds available. King referred to the years that followed as a “long and agonizing struggle” as he sacrificed and labored to raise funds. He pleaded with the Board to hold off construction until money was available. A year later, King had raised $15,000 and construction commenced. The cornerstone was laid on June 22, 1876 with great pomp and ceremony.

However, the effects of the Panic of 1873 and the resulting economic depression slowed construction to a crawl. Enrollment at the college had dwindled, and pledges toward the project diminished substantially. With the college carrying $18,000 of debt, great sacrifices were required of college staff in order to see the project to completion. President King’s salary was reduced by 40 percent. Thanks to these drastic measures and the slow recovery of the national economy, King’s Chapel was finally completed in June of 1882. King continued his tenure as President until 1908.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing in King’s Chapel, 1947

The Chapel stands today as a lasting historical treasure and a prominent symbol of Iowa history. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976. It is built with Anamosa Limestone quarried in nearby Stone City home of Iowa’s famous painter, Grant Wood. In 1882, the Board of Trustees resolved to purchase a $1,050 No. 17 Seth Thomas Clock nicknamed “Old Seth”, which still adorns the high tower along with four bells, the largest of which weighs 2,000 pounds. The Chapel has a Moller organ with 3,800 pipes.

It is the site of musical performances including the annual convocation at the commencement of the school year as well as the baccalaureate service in the spring for graduating students.

Painting of King’s Chapel by the author c.2020

This painting shows the view of King’s Chapel, looking Northwest. In churches, a transept is an area set crosswise to the nave in a cruciform building within the Romanesque and Gothic Christian church architectural traditions. In this painting, the tower crowns the nave at right-center while the transept with its massive, arched windows is seen at left-center.

If you’re ever in Eastern Iowa, enjoy a stop in Mt. Vernon, home of King’s Chapel and a number of delicious dining spots just down the street from the Chapel along historic First Street.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s