Chapel of Thanksgiving – A Meditation (1973-1976)

Every year, November just creeps up on me. It seems that you only blink and the leaves are off the trees and the frost has re-entered the air. This year, more than others, has just been filled with so much go, go, go and so few moments of pause. And so this year, more than most, I can’t wait for the quiet that comes with Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. Don’t get me wrong, the food is great; pumpkin pie is always where it’s at. But, the real reason behind my love of thanksgiving is the very public reminder to be thankful. I love that we have this day on our calendar to urge us to reflect back, reflect forward, and thank every little moment in between.

If you live in Dallas, you can do this all the time. What, you didn’t know that Dallas is the unofficial world capital of thanksgiving?

Please let me do this to the ceiling of my future house one day.
Please let me do this to the ceiling of my future house one day.

To be honest, neither did I. But I did know about this glory window. And so on a rainy day, I made my friend drive me over to check it out.

Slightly hidden to the naked eye and definitely dwarfed by the commercial skyscrapers around it, there is a little glory to be found in (at least on this rainy day) a very empty public park. Not religiously oriented, per se, the little chapel strives to create a space that allows gratitude to any god, a space that welcomes all, and a space to celebrate thoughts. It is a space that calls for reflection. A space that literally beckons you with every fiber of its being. First, because it looks odd, but then because as you gaze up, you can’t help but gaze inside yourself.

Dwarfing/Being Dwarfed
Dwarfing/Being Dwarfed

In 1964, four businessmen, Joe Neuhoff, Julius Schepps, John Stemmons, and Peter Stewart, decided they wanted to change what Dallas was recognized for. Instead of its worldly aspirations and its various economic accomplishments, they wanted to be recognized for its citizens’ character. I’m still a little unclear how this led to Thanksgiving Square, but supposedly they found a lot of historical precedent for the act of giving thanks in Dallas. From there, they decided to create the Thanks-Giving Foundation. Construction of the square began in 1973, and was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day of 1976. At the time, President Ford recognized the square as a “major national shrine.”

Now you might be wondering how a small little square took three years to construct. I know I was. Mostly because I didn’t know of everything happening under my feet.

The square itself is small, but exists on a few different planes. All in all, there are three levels, the chapel building and landscaped garden, the underground pedestrian network and the the Bullington Truck terminal. The truck terminal reroutes 400 delivery trucks off the street by moving the classic alleyway completely below ground. In between that and the public square, pedestrian walkways govern. These walkways form a below ground mall of sorts, with 14,000 square feet of shops. Finally, the garden and chapel occupy all the above ground space.

Here's just  a small sliver of the park above.
Here’s just a small sliver of the park above.

Prtizker Prize winner Philip Johnson (and we saw him before – remember this) designed the square. Sunken down about fifteen feet from the city street, a four foot wall blocks most of the automobile traffic from view. Water, as seen in his other park, plays a critical role here. The active fountains mask the city sounds that could otherwise pull you form your reverie. It also streams along the path as you move towards the chapel and through the garden. Your eyes are not inundated with religious symbolism, but instead are drawn to more unifying imagery and text from different traditions.

The park feels stumbled upon. It does not scream “look at me,” but is found and cherished. And although this might just be because we found it on a rainy day, I do truly think it was always meant to be a space that you relax into.

Ascending the footbridge.
Ascending the footbridge.

As you ascend a footbridge over a man-made water fall, the chapel looms (at least a little bit) above you. Its shape seems oddly foreign and extraterrestrial, even though the form harkens back to the ancient spiral of life seen in nature (like with the nautilus) and with the Great Mosque in Samarra, Iraq. It sprials up, in it’s own kind of post-modern way, to ninety feet above street level. (And just for you non-architecture majors here, post-modern design is recognized for its normally tongue and cheek reference to the past). Instead of copying the exact shape of the mosque, Johnson’s spiral pulls upwards. It stretches toward the sky and the infinite, not unlike the human spirit. At least according to him.

Stretching Up...
Stretching Up…

When you enter, it becomes very clear how small the space is. Only a few rings of chairs can be found to sit and contemplate in. A small interior ramp leads up – but is unfortunately not open to the public. Yet, it feels open. You enter the building and immediately understand it as there is really nothing else but the main space. The exposure of the bones of this building brings comfort and peace. There are no hideaways, instead only openness. And I have to believe that is not an accident.

As you sit and glance up, the smallness of the room around you fades away. Instead you can only think of the infinite that is above. And I am not necessarily talking about God, but rather the divine that is in all of us. The nautilus’ shape’s harmonic and peaceful rhythm recalls the perfect in nature. It reveals how ordered our reality is. And in that sense of order, you find yourself trying to make sense of your own reality. That Fibonacci sequence is some powerful stuff.

The 73 panels of stained glass form the Glory window, the largest horizontally mounted stained glass piece in the world, create a palpable sense of calm. Designed by legendary French Glass artist Gabriel Loire, his favored shade of blue is seen at large. He believed blue was the color of peace, and that “peace gives joy.” And although my friend and I stumbled into this structure to the surprise of a couple of teenagers, it was easy to let their presence fade away and feel that sense of peace.

No one else sees the space theme here?
No one else sees the space theme here?

Turns out, some of the jury is still out on this little park. There seem to be an endless list of things working against it. For a place that is supposed to create a green space in an urban jungle, there is actual very little green. Others complain the design is too high-brow and not relevant to a normal person. One of the most problematic issues is the rezoning of the neighborhood. In the 70s, it was an ideal lunch spot for all the workers in the buildings around it, but the area is transitioning to residential and the park hasn’t transitioned with it. As the buildings around it grow ever taller, the shade continues to grow on the site as well. During Fall and Winter, 90% of the space sits in shadow. Perhaps, the most concerning problem is security. Its sunken nature and the walls that offer you peace from the city, also prevent you from seeing what is going on in there easily.

Despite no big updates since the 70s, the foundation has said that they are planning to update the park for today’s times. And I really hope they do. Because we should always be striving to create more peace.

We live in a busy world. A world full of distraction and buzz. At times, it completely engulfs us. We can spend full days not really paying real attention to anything. So often, I find it challenging to ignore all the extras. And I’m sure I am not the only one.

This is a place that was literally created to provide space for you to be thankful. It was meant to offer refuge from the noise and to open the soul.

And how can you not be thankful for that?

Quiet, Peace, and Joy.
Quiet, Peace, and Joy.

I started this blog, to document some of the best places that I have been. It started rather organically, and I never really considered why these buildings had really struck me until I start to write about them. But I’ve come to recognize that I am always searching for buildings that silence the noise. Those structures that somehow make you be present with every brick and stone, I want to see them all. And with the loss of that noise, I can hear so much more.

You might not make it to Dallas and you may never step inside the Chapel of Thanks-Giving, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find your own peace and place for reflection. And so, for this week of Thanksgiving, I encourage you to find a space that allows you to really focus on you. I want you to find a space where there is no longer noise, but just an opening for your mind to wander. And definitely let me know what you found – because I am always looking.

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