Mere Monuments of Stone and Bronze would not Suffice

March 28, 2023

The Plattsburgh Memorial Chapel is described by many as the most beautiful building on the Old Base. Former Base Chaplain Major George Mennen described it as “the most beautiful chapel of my military career.” Nestled on the north end of the Oval, facing the expanse of the former military parade grounds and the once majestic Administration Building, the chapel holds a unique story of its own as it operates today under the management of volunteers who make it available for non-denominational religious services, weddings, funerals, memorial services, special presentations, and performing arts.  

The chapel was unique in the history of military posts at the time when army posts did not generally have individual chapels. The story of how this chapel became such a distinguished landmark starts with the New York City Episcopal Church’s Churchwomen’s Committee for Patriotic Service. Formed in 1922 to recognize the sacrifices of American soldiers and to work on related projects, the Churchwomen’s Committee was poised to be receptive when approached by then Plattsburgh Army Barracks Commander Colonel James W. Graham and Base Chaplain J. Burt Webster who identified the need for a chapel on their base to provide religious services for Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Plattsburgh had been the home of the ‘Plattsburgh Idea’ which sent thousands of newly trained civilians into World War I, had been a garrison for American armies since 1814 and was without a chapel. The Church women’s Committee saw this as a “spiritual opportunity” which presented itself “with great force” and in 1925 it was agreed to pursue the building of the chapel as a memorial to the graduates of the Plattsburgh Military Training Camps who had died in the Great War. They felt a mere monument to these soldiers would not suffice. With this stimulating purpose in mind, they secured a permit from the War Department, hired an architect to design a church to provide “religious facilities for the three great faiths”, and began to fund raise throughout the United States.

The chapel was designed by New York City architect Oscar Harold Murray, well known for prestigious projects in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. Over the years, Murray would submit three designs for the chapel, the first would cost $100,000 to construct, the second $250,000 and the final design at $22,472. The original requirement was to give each religion its own section of the chapel. The final design could not afford to do this. Funds for the chapel were solely provided through donations and the Great Depression seriously affected fundraising. Murray continued with the project, personally supervising the final construction from 1931 to 1933. His fee was 10% of the final construction cost.

Patrick J. Murtagh of Plattsburgh, described as a pioneer builder in Northern New York, was the chapel contractor. His credits included creating the steps around the Macdonough Monument, local grandstands, the Chateauguay Town Hall, the Roman Catholic Church in Churubusco, and the Flanders school in Malone.  The Plattsburgh Daily Republican memorialized him and noted he built more Catholic churches in Northern New York that any other living man. Murtagh’s bid for $21,860 was the lowest of five submitted and was accepted.  He used bricks rescued from an old building in Albany to match the old base setting and the fir ridgepole which traverses the full length of the roof was shipped in from the west coast on its own flatbed car.  The bell in the tower came from one of the six U.S.S. O’Brien class destroyers put to rest after WW I. James McGann of the Army Quartermaster Corp in Plattsburgh created the lighting fixtures in the Army’s local wheelwright shop. The nine wrought iron chandeliers he made are still hanging in the Chapel today. Represented in the design are images showing figures representing the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths. Murtagh took on this project four years before his death at 81in 1935. The interior design work continued through the 1930’s and 1940’s under the direction of Adria Maude Semple Langdon, Chairperson of the Plattsburgh Memorial Chapel Committee.

The dedication of the Chapel on October 24, 1933 was attended by all the pastors of city churches and others from the vicinity. The choir was from the local Trinity Episcopal Church. The music by the 26th Infantry Band featured recognition of the “rituals of the three branches of faith”. The dedication was well attended. The church was formally presented to the United States Government by the League for Patriotic Service’s president Mrs. Henry Stanford and accepted by Post Commander Colonel Harry E. Knight who thanked them for “this beautiful gift”.

Helen Allen Nerska

Helen Allen Nerska is Director of the Clinton County Historical Association and Museum and historian for the Town of Peru. She is the editor and author of the Clinton County Suffrage Story and speaks regularly on local history topics. She is also the editor of the Heritage Corner published monthly in the SUN Community News and co-President of the League of Women Voters of the North Country.

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