The Knowles Memorial Chapel is one of the most beautiful buildings in Florida and is a magnificent focal point of the Rollins campus. It was a gift of Frances Knowles Warren of Boston, Massachusetts, in memory of her father, Francis Bangs Knowles, as a lasting memorial in gratitude for his distinguished service. Knowles was instrumental in the building of Winter Park in the late 1800s and served as a founder, generous donor and charter trustee of Rollins College.
Ground was broken for the chapel on March 9, 1931 and the cornerstone was laid on May 12 of the same year. The dedication service for the chapel took place just a year later on March 29, 1932. Dean of the Chapel Charles Atwood Campbell conducted the service assisted by Warren and President Hamilton Holt.
The chapel was designed by the well-known American ecclesiastical architect Ralph Adams Cram of Boston. The cost of construction in the early 1930s was $250,000.
The chapel has four main parts: the great nave with its beautiful chancel; the Frances Chapel or side chapel on the south; the cupolaed tower or campanile; and the sacristy where the chapel office, lounge, choir and class rooms are located.
Rollins has no religious affiliation, so the chapel is interdenominational. A Protestant services is held on Sunday mornings, and Catholic Mass is held on Sunday evenings.
The architect for the Knowles Memorial Chapel was considered the foremost Gothic architecture expert of his time. In over two dozen books, Ralph Adams Cram articulated not only his architectural principles but his philosophy of art, religions and culture. No single architect has had more influence on college and university construction in the United States. Cram designed chapels and often overall campus designs, such as at West Point, Bryn Mawr, Sweet Briar, Williams, Wheaton, Notre Dame and Rice among many others. Cram also designed over 75 cathedrals and churches in Europe and throughout the United States in Florida, Boston, Texas and California.
Cram, the internationally known architect and medieval scholar, visited Rollins in 1938 and appeared in President Hamilton Holt’s Animated Magazine. Among his most notable buildings are St. Thomas and St. John the Divine, both in New York City, and the Princeton University Graduate College Refectory. On the day of his death in 1942, among the many quotes from leaders of the day is one from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who lamented, “A towering figure has been lost to our cultural life.”
After his death, his daughter wrote, “As you were well aware, the Knowles Chapel at Rollins was his favorite.”
In the sanctuary are two stained glass windows. The one on the left has faith for its general theme. Its central detail portrays the conversion of St. Augustine and the lower detail is the symbolic representation of the City of God. The theme of the other window is love. Its central detail is the figure of St. Francis preaching to the birds and animals, while its lower detail illustrates St. Francis rebuilding the little chapel of St. Damien at Assisi.
Over the rear gallery which seats 110 people is a great circular window, typically Renaissance in nature. The theme of this window is taken from Proverbs 9:1, and the design depicts allegorical figures of Wisdom and the seven Liberal Arts, with the seven pillars and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit completing the composition. Apart from the two windows in the sanctuary, the remainder of the glass is in geometrical design, of English antique glass with ornamental borders. These windows are the work of Wilbur Herbert Burham of Boston.
With the encouragement of Cram, Rollins College President Hamilton Holt and Frances Knowles Warren engaged the services of the Skinner Organ company of Boston to build a three-manual organ for the chapel. Cram and Ernest M. Skinner had worked together on many distinguished projects throughout the United States, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York. Both men enjoyed a reputation for unique artistry.
Skinner was by the mid-1920s regarded as the preeminent organ-builder of his day, and his instruments were known for their solid construction and the lush orchestral beauty of their tone, which was commonly referred to as the Symphonic Organ.
In 1955, together with Rollins College organ professors Catharine Crozier and Harold Gleason and Rollins Conservatory Director Robert Hufstader, Harrison designed major tonal revisions and additions to expand the Knowles Chapel instrument’s capability of playing all schools of organ literature. This approach was essential if the organ was to be a viable instrument for an educational institution.