By Greg Olson
Firestone-Baars Chapel had its genesis in 1939, when Stephens College began planning for an interfaith chapel for its Columbia, Missouri campus. After years of fundraising, the college commissioned Finish-American architect Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) to design the new building. Saarinen was well known for his award-winning modernist churches in Columbus, Indiana and Minneapolis, Minnesota. For the Stephens College chapel, he envisioned a cylindrical structure surrounded by a reflecting pool. However, Saarinen died before plans for the project were complete.
In 1953, the college commissioned Saarinen’s son and business partner Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) to complete the chapel. The younger Saarinen disregarded his father’s original design in favor of an elegantly-simple cube-shaped building that featured a sharp spire atop a gently-sloped pyramidal roof. This roof design would be used in another Saarinen project, the North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, which was complete in 1964. The Firestone-Baars Chapel’s minimalist interior reflects the college’s desire to provide a nondenominational space for interfaith worship, quite reflection and meditation.
At the time Saarinen designed the Firestone-Baars Chapel, he was still a relatively unknown architect. Though he had already designed his most famous project, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, that structure was still more than a decade from completion. Many of his most important buildings, such as the TWA terminal at J.F.K Airport in New York and the main terminal building at Dulles International Airport were completed after Saarinen died in 1961 at the age of fifty-one.