A building gives an architect a chance to leave a mark. In designing a renovation of the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge’s chapel, Davis Jahncke chose to leave a tribute.
Famed Baton Rouge architect A. Hays Town designed the school's Lewis Memorial Chapel of the Good Shepherd. The renovated chapel continues to respect Town’s vision, Jahncke said.
“I felt that everything that we did should look like it was original or, certainly, what he would have done if he’d had the opportunity,” said Jahncke, of Jahncke and Burns Architects in New Orleans. “I didn’t want to insert anything that said it was by another architect.”
Town, who died in 2005, was best known for his residential designs that were influenced by Louisiana’s French, Spanish and Creole history. That was the focus of visits Jahncke made to see Town. Often, they would drive to houses Town had designed, and their owners would invite them in to look.
“I thoroughly understood what he was all about,” Jahncke said. “I think of him as how a 19th-century person would live if they had air conditioning. His houses would easily adapt to the 19th century, but they had the conveniences of today.”
Town also designed churches. And when developer A.C. Lewis built a chapel for the school, Town was the architect.
The denomination’s British roots meant a different style was appropriate, and Town studied Christ Episcopal Church in Napoleonville as a Gothic Revival model for Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette in the 1950s and for the Baton Rouge project.
The school’s chapel was built on a pay-as-you-go basis and was used for open-air services before a roof was added, said Andrew Spaulding, project architect for Jahncke and Burns. Since its 1974 completion, it has been used for daily school chapel services, graduation exercises and weddings.
Alumni loved the chapel, which made any renovations perilous.
“When you do something in a church, people get really touchy about changes,” said the Rev. Kirkland “Skully” Knight, Episcopal’s chaplain. “People have deep connections to their schools and the traditions. … I didn’t want them coming back going, ‘Oh, my God, what did you do to our chapel?’ ”
Jahncke added traditional, hanging cathedral lights, greatly brightening the interior, and changed the chancel area around the altar from three levels to one, making the space far more versatile, Knight said. The altar is now set on casters — they aren’t visible from the 400-seat nave — so it can be easily moved. Stone flooring replaced tile, and a railing originally used in the St. Elizabeth Home for Girls in New Orleans separates the chancel from the rest of the sanctuary.
“It was one of the nicest finds, because that was exactly the kind of thing Mr. Town would do,” Spaulding said. “He would look for secondhand architectural elements to put into new buildings and give them the character of age.”
Other changes include converting the former chaplain’s office into a classroom, and addig a wing to provide restrooms, an office and space for heating and air conditioning units. Decorative, hand-hammered iron hinges are prominent on all doors.
“One of the great things about the renovation is people who come back to school, they know that it’s been renovated and they can tell that it looks new in a way, but they almost can’t tell you what it is,” Knight said. “It looks and feels like the place that people remember, but it’s been taken care of and, in a way, sort of restored.”
The exterior renovations are impossible not to notice. Entry doors, once exposed to the elements, are covered, most prominently by a narthex that has an ancient-looking iron cross at the peak. A covered walkway connects the narthex to a nearby academic building. Charles Carter Construction was the general contractor.
New Orleans artisan Darryl Reeves crafted the cross out of iron originally used to support chimneys at the Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter. The walkway uses the same Doric columns that are along adjacent buildings that Town also designed.
“It was important not to do some sort of Gothic-y covered walkway but to pick up the columns off the existing building, bring it out, and I think it flowed together just fine,” Jahncke said.
The renovation cost about $1.5 million, all of which was raised from alumni and school supporters. Since its late 2017 reopening, all the feedback has been positive.
“It just kind of looks right,” Knight said. “Davis did a great job of doing that. It all sort of fit and it works.”