For almost 80 years, colorful stained glass, towering wooden columns and shining organ pipes have left a lasting impression on those who have attended weddings, baptisms, funerals and church services at Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Main Post Chapel. It’s central to Fort Lewis geographically and it’s been the spiritual center for many people who have been stationed at JBLM. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle District, is nearly done with renovations to bring the historic building into the 21st century.
"The chapel is part of the soul of JBLM," said JBLM Chaplain (Col). Bart Physioc. "People talk about how long they’ve been coming here or that they were married, baptized or attended a funeral here. It’s part of a history that is so profoundly important that if you take this chapel away, the base just becomes a place where people work."
"The chapel represents continuity and the beauty of our past," said Duane Denfeld, JBLM architectural historian. "It would have been crazy to tear this one down because we couldn’t have built one as beautiful and honestly, we just don’t have that kind of money."
The chapel, which serves 45,000 service members in addition to their families, needed to be renovated to make it more accessible for people with mobility challenges in addition to updating classrooms and the communication system. A large number of the people the chapel serves includes retirees and Wounded Warriors with a myriad of mobility challenges.
Though it is open to all, it wasn’t as accessible as it is now to those in wheelchairs. Before the renovations, there were only two chair lifts and no elevator and often wheelchair-bound attendees needed to be physically carried up the stairs into the worship hall.
Wireless capabilities were also installed so classrooms could also be used for training purposes. While the chapel’s primary function is to serve the religious and spiritual needs of the community, it can also be reserved for other non-religious purposes.
"It’s open every day for people who just want to sit in the chapel or memorialize what they’ve lost, Chaplain Physioc said. "We’ve tried to think of all the possibilities of what people need in their faith and I think we’ve truly accomplish this with the renovation."
"What’s interesting about it is the only locally designed building on Fort Lewis and didn’t follow the standard Quartermaster plans," Denfeld said. "It gave the post an opportunity to build something closely connected with the people so they would feel more responsible for its design and construction."
The old design already had some sustainable features such as sturdy concrete, brick and a high roof. To make the building even more sustainable, a ground source heat pump and storm windows were added.
"Buildings back then were designed for air circulation," said Denfeld, who looked at many old newspaper articles and photos to ensure the historical features were maintained and the restoration went smoothly. "This building was well constructed—you never really know until you dig in."
"The thing I felt the most satisfaction with this project is providing a better facility for all those people who have an emotional attachment," said Jeff Halvorson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle District project engineer, who also helped restore the Fort Lewis Museum. "You can just feel the energy in the chapel and you can’t help but feel good about it. Restoring a museum is one thing, but a restoring a place of worship is quite another."