Renovations Turn Chapel Into Space That Welcomes All

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Before Thomas Smith began his address in Phillips Stevens Chapel— before he had even said a single word—the assembled Williston Northampton students and faculty gave him a rousing ovation.

What had the audience found so moving? Mr. Smith’s simple act of ascending to the stage, which he accomplished by bypassing the stairs and rising on the chapel’s brand new wheelchair lift.

That Mr. Smith, the Diversity Symposium keynote speaker and a quadriplegic, could access the stage smoothly and easily was worth applauding.

The new lift, part of an extensive, year-long chapel renovation project, was the final piece in a retrofit puzzle that made Phillips Stevens Chapel completely accessible for the first time since it was constructed in 1965.

Building renovations—funded by parents of the Class of 2014—included extensive updates to the choir loft, rear entrance, and exterior. The project involved moving and rewiring the organ, raising and reconfiguring the loft, and rebuilding the altar into a wide, performance-enhanced stage with a modern audio and visual system.

Since being installed in late 2014, the multimedia system and stage have become a mainstay of weekly assemblies. They have also been used for performances and talks by such notables as the Yale Whiffenpoofs; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder P’92, ’97; Cum Laude speaker Mark Franczyk ’00; and Wright Speaker Series visitor Jacy Good.

Director of Parent Relations Rachel Goldberg, who helped raise much of the $300,000 needed for the project, said the renovations turned the chapel into a centerpiece of life at Williston.

“It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “It feels like an accomplishment for the school and like we’re improving the school.”

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Behind the chapel, contractors re-graded the ground to create a handicap parking area. Bathrooms were renovated to make the stalls wider and sinks lower, while an elevator was installed near the back door to provide easy access to the classrooms downstairs and to the sanctuary upstairs.

“Certainly the space will be lot more flexible and usable,” said Jeffrey Tannett who oversaw the project as Director of the Physical Plant. “The handicap accessibility is huge.”

Perhaps it was most fitting then, that the inaugural use of the stage lift was by someone who has devoted his career to raising awareness of handicap issues—particularly regarding spinal cord injuries and trauma.

“I can’t tell you how many times, when I was in a wheelchair, people would treat me differently,” Mr. Smith, who also uses forearm crutches, told the Williston Northampton audience. “My career has directed me in different directions through tragedy.”

Mr. Smith, co-founder of the Thomas E. Smith Foundation, suffered two major injuries as a junior hockey player. The first left him temporarily paralyzed. The second, a year later, left him permanently so. Now an advocate for patients with similar injuries, Mr. Smith heads the “Look-up Line” campaign, which advocates for a yellow ring to be added to hockey rinks, as a visual cue to players that walls are ahead ahead.

As the keynote speaker for the Diversity Symposium, Mr. Smith commended the school for not only renovating the chapel, but adding a “Look-up Line” to the Lossone Rink.

“It just shows that you guys are ahead,” Mr. Smith said. “People recognize when you do hard work, when you’re determined to make our culture better.”

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