Magazine Feature

October marks centennial of Buchtel Memorial Tower

Buchtel Memorial Chapel is seen before the 1983 fire that destroyed most of the structure.

One hundred years ago, on Oct. 26, 1910, the cornerstone was laid for a chapel at DU. It stood just northwest of University Hall facing Evans Avenue.

Three years earlier, Methodists of the Colorado Conference had begun to collect funds for the chapel’s construction. The Clarion noted that “no date can be set for the completion of the building, but that the University is to have a beautiful Chapel building costing about $60,000 in a reasonably short time is an assured fact.”

As sometimes happens, the Clarion got it wrong. Budgetary difficulties slowed construction, so the chapel was not dedicated until 1917. It was named Memorial Chapel to honor DU alumni who had perished in World War I. A large bronze plaque with the names of the fallen was mounted on the north wall.

The chapel’s exterior reflected Moorish and Spanish missionary influences. Chancellor Henry Buchtel had recently visited California and was impressed by similar architecture he had seen there. He retained Colorado Springs architect Thomas Barber to design the building. A tower stood at each of the building’s four corners, each topped by a copper dome.

Although original funding had come from the Methodist church, a tablet inside the chapel reminded visitors of the ecumenical mission of the University. It read: “In hope that religious prejudices may vanish from the life of all Christian bodies.” The plaque, and $16,000 dollars for interior decoration, had come in 1917 from J.K. Mullen, a Roman Catholic and benefactor of Mullen High School in Denver.

The Memorial Chapel sat 800 and hosted numerous secular events such as freshmen assemblies and guest lectures. The music school frequently used it for classes, practice sessions and concerts. The chapel also was a favorite place for alumni events. Two of the more well-known objects housed inside were a copy of the Sistine Madonna created by the copyist Hermann Till and a large pipe organ installed in 1924.

In 1949, Memorial Chapel was renamed the Buchtel Chapel after DU’s chancellor. Buchtel, who had presided over the original construction, had served as chancellor of the University from 1900–24 and governor of Colorado from 1907–09.

On July 20, 1983, an early morning fire destroyed nearly all of Buchtel Chapel. DU employees coming to work that morning were shocked to see the smoldering shell of the building. Much of the structure had been made of wood, and with several large tapestries hanging inside, the fire spread very rapidly. The Denver Fire Department concluded that arson was the cause of the fire, though no arrests were ever made. Others have speculated that perhaps a homeless person was living in the building at night and accidently started the blaze.

For months the campus community speculated on the future of the chapel site as the building skeleton stood in limbo. Would the chapel be rebuilt? Would it be leveled and turned into a garden or replaced by another structure? Finally the decision was made to salvage one tower, the northwest tower containing the cornerstone, and today the single Buchtel Memorial Tower remains a unique feature on campus.

Chancellor Henry Buchtel presided over a rapid expansion of campus building during his tenure. In addition to the chapel, he added the Carnegie Library, Science Hall and the Alumni Gymnasium. The other three buildings were eventually demolished either because they were in very poor condition or stood in the way of new campus construction. Ironically, the chapel—the first of Buchtel’s building to fall—turned out to be the last standing, at least in part.


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