By Thomas Goldsmith
The chapel that patients and staff at Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Hospital attended for almost 60 years is getting a $2 million facelift and will greet visitors to Dix Park as well as offer concerts, community meetings, educational programs, spiritual events and more.
The All Faiths Chapel opened in 1955 as a brand new resource for people at Dorothea Dix, a state-run hospital for people with mental illness, substance abuse problems, and intellectual disabilities that housed people from all over North Carolina. It closed along with the hospital in the 2010s, but the imposing red-brick building with a soaring sanctuary appears much as it did during its life as a church, when patients such as Lori Brinson, of Asheville, found it a refuge on the campus.
“My favorite memories were the chapel,” said Brinson, who received treatment at Dix during periods in the 1980s and ’90s. “I enjoyed the chapel more than any other place. I would go to the church on Sunday mornings and when I got my pass, I would walk to the chapel and read the Bible in the front, which is usually turned to Psalms. That was probably one of the most peaceful places.”
The facility needs work because of some deterioration, changing building standards, and the need to meet provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said John Ramsey Jr., son of the original architect John Ramsey Sr. and a supervisor of the chapel’s renewal.
“It’s been used pretty much continuously as a non-denominational, non-sectarian chapel facility for the patients of the hospital,” Ramsey said during a recent visit to the building.
Weddings, concerts, services
The City of Raleigh bought the property from the state in 2015 for use as a destination park near downtown. Under city ownership and the participation of the Dix Conservancy, the chapel could reopen as soon as late 2020 or early 2021.
“Weddings will be held here, possibly funerals will be held here, other spiritual services will be held here,” Ramsey said. “There will be musical concerts, educational enrichment programs. The building seats over 500 people, so it will be a significant venue for that kind of thing in Raleigh.“
Projected work on the chapel will cost about $2 million, not including donated materials and services. Unexpected expenses could emerge, as during any older building’s reworking, said Millan Edmondson, operations manager for the Dorothea Dix Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group that works with the City of Raleigh on developing and fundraising for the 308-acre property.
“You never know once you go in there what you’re going to find,“ Edmondson said. “We’ll have a more detailed budget once things get moving.”
History a pillar of project
Garner resident Clarence Boyd, an administrator at Dix hospital from 1969 to 1985, has long pushed for more attention for the chapel, where he was married while working on the campus. “The first thing I was advocating for was the restoration,” said Boyd, 85. “The second thing, I don’t think anybody has picked up on, but I feel strongly that after the renovation it be made a memorial to the patients, their families and the staff who were part of the hospital.“
What will the refurbished chapel contain?
Millan Edmondson, operations manager for the Dorothea Dix Park Conservancy, said the building will have five areas intended for different uses by visitors and park staff:
- The entrance area, or former narthex, will greet visitors to the park with information about amenities and history. It will also have ADA-compliant restrooms.
- The sanctuary will accommodate a variety of events including “weddings, concerts, community meetings, discussion, lecturers, and possibly art installations,“ Edmondson said.
- The balcony above the narthex will become a meeting area. Whether it is open to the public or only city staff depends on the cost of meeting ADA requirements.
- Former office and classroom space behind the worship area will become secure on-site office space for the city’s Dix staff.
- Additional “back of the house” space will offer amenities such as storage, a warming kitchen for events, more restrooms, and possibly a changing room.
Edmondson said the church’s former narthex, or lobby area, will welcome visitors as the park’s first “public-facing” space. The long history of the property, from its cultivation by Native Americans to its occupancy by Dorothea Dix Hospital, will be presented in-depth elsewhere in the park, but will emerge in some form at the chapel entrance area.
“The history is one of the pillars we look at in every aspect of the master plan,” Edmondson said. “The ecology, the history and the legacy there are aspects we want to make sure to maintain. A lot of this will be determined by programming, but it is a very important part to everyone involved.”
Boyd would like to see the name All Faiths Chapel preserved, although Edmondson said that decision has not been made. The building could again hold spiritual services, but likely only under the same guidelines that apply to other City of Raleigh community centers.
‘A lot of anger’
The hospital, which accepted its first patients in 1856, closed in 2012 following years of planning and discussion. The closing occurred because of decaying infrastructure, increased cost of operation, and changes in mental health treatment philosophy that placed an emphasis on caring for people in the community, if possible.
Some patients, providers and advocates called it a bad decision.
“There was a lot of anger, frustration, bitterness, when they closed that hospital,” Boyd said, suggesting that respectfully remembering the former institution could relieve some lingering tensions.
Patients and Dix staff had access to the chapel when it opened, and others with a Dix connection had weddings and funerals there. Raleigh architectural historian Ruth Little said the building represents the mid-century modern style seen in many Triangle homes and businesses.
“It’s a nice example of modernist religious design — with clean form, no added decoration, ‘sawtooth’ sidewalls with narrow non-glare windows that don’t shine on the congregation,” Little said.
A succession of full-time pastors held services at the chapel and ministered to patients and staff. In 1962, Chaplain William R. Steininger told the Charlotte News that “love and attention” were the greatest needs of Dix patients.
“It is lack of it which brought many of them here,” said Steininger, who also oversaw classes of college students in religion, medicine, psychology and social work as they trained while taking summer jobs as attendants at Dix.
How we reported this story:
It immediately seemed there was a story to be told when we heard that the 1955 All Faiths Chapel on the Dorothea Dix campus would reopen after being closed for years.
The first step in reporting was talking to people at the City of Raleigh, which owns the property, and the nonprofit Dix Conservancy, in charge of its renewal. We wanted a chance to tour the somewhat decrepit chapel and hear about the plans to restore it as a welcome center and event space.
It took a few tries to meet everyone’s schedule, but reporter/visual journalist Taylor Knopf and I were fortunate and met not only with Dix Conservancy staff but also with John Ramsey Jr., son of the architect who designed the building decades ago.
The logistics were complicated enough that Taylor eventually gave up trying to coordinate child care with the times the Dix folks were available. Instead, she strapped on her infant son and came over. He was very cooperative that day.
Ramsey was full of stories and details about such features as the elaborate cylindrical fixtures that light the sanctuary. It was nostalgic and a little eerie to encounter the dusty, quiet and worn fixtures that filled the 500-person-capacity church, a building that had held services for more than 50 years.
Raleigh architectural historian Ruth Little singled out specific design points that made the chapel a fine example of the mid-century modern approach. We also consulted Haven on the Hill, the comprehensive history of Dix by former employee Marjorie O’Rorke.
Needing the voice of someone who had worshipped at the chapel, we located former Dix patient Lori Brinson, of Asheville, who remembered the chapel as a haven of quiet. Clarence Boyd, 85, a former Dix administrator who showed up in previous media coverage, supplied the viewpoint of the many people connected with the hospital who mourned its closing in 2012.
And we found a voice from long ago in a database of old newspapers, that of former Chaplain William Steininger, who spoke of the love and attention that patients needed to deal with their somewhat dire circumstances.