Elderly congregation loses fight to save Fort Jackson's World War II-era chapel

Fort Jackson is shown in this undated photo.


By JEFF WILKINSON | The State (Columbia, S.C.) | Published: July 24, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (Tribune News Service) — An elderly congregation has lost its battle with the U.S. Army to save Fort Jackson's landmark Memorial Chapel.

The chapel, built in 1941 and dedicated in 1958 to all the soldiers who trained at Fort Jackson for World War II, is slated for demolition in October. The congregation, which has been worshiping there for decades, will hold its last service in the chapel July 30.

The 30 or so members, led by 92-year-old Kathryn Woodward, whose husband, Arthur, was a World War II veteran, had argued that the chapel was a historic landmark, even though modifications through the years had made it ineligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

"We kind of lost heart," said Woodward. "We were getting nowhere. They say it's not a historic chapel, (but rather) a sentimental one."

A Fort Jackson spokesman said via email that the chapel was too expensive to move, repair or operate. Fort commanders have already razed the old Post Headquarters and other structures from the same era.

"The Army considers WWII temporary buildings as functionally inadequate and uneconomical as long-term solutions to mission requirements," spokesman Pat Jones wrote. "The Army's goal is to eliminate WWII temporary buildings on active Army garrisons. The plan is to build a new chapel in the future to accommodate the religious needs of its personnel but it does not eliminate the plan to get rid of WWII buildings."

The disagreement between the congregation and the garrison commanders at the fort became contentious at times. For instance, the altar, baptismal font and piano were removed from the chapel earlier this year, without anyone telling the congregation.

"We just showed up and they were gone," Woodward said last week. "It irritated me because we walked in and the altar and the baptismal were gone and the next Sunday the piano was gone."

Jones said that the altar and baptismal font were transferred to the fort's Chaplains School for use in training.

However, Jones said "the congregation was not informed on the removal of these items. The command's intent is to keep the congregation informed of all actions taken with regard to Memorial Chapel. All future actions will be conveyed to the congregation."

Woodward's granddaughter, Quin Woodward Pu, said the Army handled the situation poorly.

"I've been disappointed a lot by what has happened," said Woodward Pu, a Washington, D.C., public relations professional. "We're talking about the Greatest Generation, people who served in the military and religion. Those are the most sensitive things you can deal with. (Fort officials) didn't even make an effort to preserve the chapel, and I've been really disappointed with the way they've handled the whole situation."

Chapel No. 1

The chapel — along with 16 others constructed at the fort during the buildup to World War II — was dedicated more than 75 years ago.

In addition to the post headquarters, the old wooden barracks on Tank Hill (named for a water tank, not an armored tank) were also razed last year.

In order to get an exception to the demolition edict, the chapel would have to qualify for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, Jones said. But in a 1995 review by the S.C. Department of History and Archives — the state's body for recommendations to the National Register — Memorial Chapel didn't pass muster.

"The chief knock on it is the cumulative effect of modifications," Brad Sauls, supervisor of the state agency's National Register program, said earlier this year.

The chapel was completed in 1941 as part of the World War II mobilization effort. There were 17 identical chapels built on the post at the same time during the rapid World War II buildup, when the fort was bursting at the seams with recruits bound for battlefields in Europe and the Pacific.

Memorial Chapel at the time was named Chapel No. 1, because of its prominent location near Post Headquarters and the Fort Jackson Museum.

Then the modifications began, according to the the 1995 archives report:

— A marbleized wallboard altar was installed in 1958, but was later removed;

— Air conditioning was installed in 1956;

— Other alterations were made in 1967;

— In the most drastic modification, synthetic siding was applied to the building about 1985;

— Sometime after the 1995 report, the choir loft was enclosed and turned into offices, and then storage;

— It's not known if the building contains asbestos.

But while the report notes that the small, 400-seat chapel contains beautiful features such as a soaring vaulted ceiling and some rich detail, it is not unique, and the modifications further erode its historical value.

"The Chapel preserves a high degree of architectural integrity, however, it is a common building type from the World War II period that exists on many military installations across the country and does not posses sufficient architectural or historical significance to be considered eligible as an individual building," the report states. "Nevertheless, it does possess sufficient architectural and historical significance to be recommended a contributing building in the Fort Jackson Historic District."

Congregation members said a new garrison chaplain has been easier to deal with and more sympathetic to the congregation's views. He has scheduled independent 8 a.m. services for them at the post's main, more modern chapel. But the demolition is scheduled to go forward.

"We asked if they could find a place for us to meet because we've been meeting together for so many years, and they did. So that was nice," Woodward said. "But they should have kept Memorial Chapel up through the years. It's just a shame."

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