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Sacred Jewel Box: Mary's Chapel

O’Brien & Keane's design of a  small chapel on a rural site in the mid-Atlantic region earns a 2017 Palladio Award.

2017 Palladio Award
New Design and Construction, Less Than 30,000 sq.ft. 
Winner: O’Brien & Keane, Arlington, VA

Project: Mary’s Chapel, Mid-Atlantic Region

Architect: O’Brien & Keane, Arlington, Virginia. James Henry O’Brien, AIA, Principal-in-Charge; Joseph P. DeVylder, AIA, Staff Architect; Emily Broadwell, Nic Charbonneau, Elizabeth Farrell, Charlotte Miller, Staff Designers

Bigger is not always better. A brighter, bolder, more eye-catching, “stand out from the crowd” look isn’t necessarily the best option. Sometimes when you want to show off strength, the trick is not to show off at all.

When O’Brien & Keane, a full-service architecture firm in Virginia, was commissioned by a family to create a small chapel on a rural site in the mid-Atlantic region, firm Principal James Henry O’Brien knew he couldn’t possibly say no. The clients shared a deep appreciation of traditional sacred architecture and looked to the firm to help realize a lifelong dream.

“This is the kind of project that comes along once in a lifetime. Our client certainly charted this course. To be able to participate was a great privilege, and at the same time the work carried a good deal of responsibility to do it justice. Everyone involved seemed to get caught up in the work, and it brought out the best in everyone,” says Jim O’Brien, AIA, principal, O’Brien & Keane. The sacred space was inspired by the Porziuncola, located inside the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels Church, a small and narrow chapel where it is said St. Francis threw away all his properties and used it as his base for missionary work, near Assisi, Italy.

“A church building should convey a sense of permanence. The ‘forever’ of our faith, our spirit, and our Creator should be reflected in the building. So we turn to Creation itself to find the best means of expression,” says O’Brien. A desire for permanence, durability, and authenticity led the way. This was reflected in the building’s concept and design, and it paved the way for the construction material selection as well as the detailing.

“The land itself was chosen, as I understand, because of its visibility to travelers on a nearby road, so that it might stand in witness. Because of some external constraints, the location of the building within the property boundaries was somewhat limited. Happily, the alignment of an intersecting road was congruent with the desired east/west axis of the building. In keeping with ancient tradition, the entrance faces west, with the sanctuary and apse to the east and the rising sun,” says O’Brien.

Inspired by the volume and proportions of the Porziuncola, O’Brien & Keane used this as a departure point. Additional refinements, deeply embedded in classical architecture and timeless design expression, were incorporated to convey the dignity and sanctity envisioned by the clients.

O’Brien & Keane created a simple floor plan: a traditional basilica layout with a narrow nave and a raised sanctuary with an apsidal end. You enter the nave from the outside, and move through to the vestibule, or narthex.

“In all cases, the building materials were to be natural and left uncovered and uncoated. There is no paint used on the project. The water-shedding and flashing systems are designed to work without sealant joints, and the only sealant used on the building is at the window/limestone junction,” says O’Brien. He notes the roof is composed of red clay tiles and standing seam lead-coated copper roofing, and wall and roof flashings are also lead-coated copper. Bronze elements can be seen externally in the entrance door, window frames, and custom bell, and internally, at the cross hung over the entry.

Fieldstone, native to the region, rests on a base of honed green Vermont granite and covers the exterior walls. Indiana Limestone trim was chosen for the windows, doors and eaves. Not including the 24-in. thick masonry walls, the interior is a mere 702 square feet.

“Probably the most challenge-within-the-challenge was the fieldstone installation. The rest of the stone was shop-fabricated and came to the site ready for installation…certainly not easy, but there was little guesswork after all of the planning and engineering. It took a great deal of stamina and concentration, as well as on-site artisanship, on the part of the masons to install the fieldstone so consistently and to a well defined standard over such a long period,” says O’Brien.

Fieldstone was sourced locally from the Catocin area along the Potomac River. This very hard material’s roughness draws in the rustic beauty of its natural surroundings and, according to O’Brien, sets up a strong contract with the carved limestone, which introduces a refined and tailored interior ambiance. “I felt as though the interior should be bursting out at the doors and windows,” says O’Brien.

Limestone helps to evoke a sense of cohesiveness within the architectural expression between the interior and exterior. Walls are complemented with limestone pilasters set upon a matching base, carrying a matching entablature. The interior wall surface is simply unpainted traditional plaster. The floor consists of two-centimeter thick marble, set on a deep mortar bed and polished in place, without grout joints. To play against the neutral color palette of limestone and plaster, colorful marble was incorporated.

“The marble flooring was another great opportunity to showcase the beauty of Creation. We initially had a diamond pattern in mind for the Azul Macauba in the nave, but in working directly with the fabricator, we decided to simply arrange four slabs in a book match pattern, just as they were taken from the earth,” says O’Brien.

O’Brien also designed custom liturgical furnishings inside the sanctuary, many rendered in Bianco Carrara. “Each has its own purpose and role to play within the liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church, so there are a number of practical requirements to accommodate,” says O’Brien. He says the design expression leans more toward meaning and message, yet he created a “family of elements that speak the same language.” The connection between the natural material, detailing, and motif all coalesce to tell a story.

“For example, the altar features an inlaid marble composition of figures representing the implements of the crucifixion, thereby reinforcing the connection between that event and the Eucharistic mystery which takes place upon the altar. A scroll, rendered in marble and with incised Greek letters alpha and omega—beginning and end—is applied to the ambo, from which scripture is read,” says O’Brien

Another furnishings contributor was the Rambusch Decorating Company, which provided the liturgical artwork, oversaw the design and fabrication of the Stations of the Cross, the apse dome mosaic, custom lighting fixtures, and the crucifix.

All of the natural elements, coupled with the demure size and stature of the chapel, echo the desire for permanence, durability, and authenticity. “We set out to create an environment that is serene, contemplative, and transcendent. In a way, the building is a container for the elements that serve the religious rites and devotions, similar to how a museum is a container for the art. I’ve had people tell me it reminds them of a jewel box, and I’m happy that they don’t say a jewel itself,” says O’Brien. 

Key Suppliers

Liturgical Artwork: Rambusch Decorating Company, Jersey City, NJ

Structural Engineer: Meyer Consulting Engineers, Rockville, MD

General Contractor: Winchester Construction, Millersville, MD

Stone Supplier, Granite: Charles Luck, Jessup, MD

Stone Installer, Granite: Woody Masonry, Edgewater, MD

Stone Supplier, Fieldstone: Tri-State Stone Supply, Bethesda, MD

Stone Installer, Fieldstone: Vachino Masonry, Parkton, MD

Stone Supplier and Fabricator, Limestone: Bybee Stone, Ellettsville, IN

Stone Installer, Limestone: Rugo Stone, Lorton, VA

Stone Supplier, Paving: Greenspring, Jarrettsville, MD

Stone Installer, Paving: Vachino Masonry, Parkton, MD

Stone Supplier, Marble: Roberto Pagliari SC, SAS, Sarzana, SP, Italy

Stone Fabricator, Marble: Roberto Pagliari SC, SAS, Sarzana, SP, Italy

Stone Installer, Marble: Booms Stone Company, Redford, MI

Stone Fabricator, Mosaic: New Ravenna Mosaics, Exmore, VA

Stone Supplier, Mosaic: Architectural Ceramics, Rockville, MD

Stone Installer, Mosaic: DJac Marble and Tile, Grasonville, MD

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