Michael Li/Sun File Photo

Sage Chapel is a historic landmark on Cornell's campus, as well as an active center for religious and musical practice.

March 25, 2021

Sage Chapel Closes Its Doors For Rest and Repair, Awaiting Further Funds

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146 years after it was built, following a semester as a COVID testing site, countless religious services and many weddings, Sage Chapel is back under construction. 

The chapel has required costly renovations to its floors, pews and 81-year-old Aeolian-Skinner organ for some time. The repurposing of the chapel as a testing site in the fall and the hefty price tag of $1.2 million to repair the organ, according to Prof. Annette Richards, music, has hindered much needed repairs. 

Cornell planned to conduct these repairs later in the decade, according to Oliver Goodrich, associate dean for spirituality and meaning making. However, when Cornell closed campus last year, the University saw a unique opportunity to get started with the funding available.

“During the early summer of 2020, with the building closed and many construction workers looking for work, an opportunity emerged to move up the timeline,” Goodrich wrote in a statement to the Sun.

Richards plays the chapel’s Aeolian-Skinner organ and serves as executive director of the Cornell Center for Historical Keyboards and is the University Organist. She called for donations to secure the long-term care of this historic building, which has been neglected in recent years.

“Sage Chapel is a beautiful, historic building and it really is one of the most special places on campus,” Richards said.“Likewise, the organ which was built in 1940 is an instrument of real historic importance and interest. Together they represent the history and fabric of Cornell.” 

As it waits to secure funding for the organ repair, the University completed smaller brush-ups on the instrument.

“We’ve been gradually re-leathering parts of the wind system because there are parts that are sealed with very thin layers of leather which get dried out and cracked,” said Richards. “We need to find a way to completely restore the interior workings of the organ.”

While these repairs are needed to maintain the Chapel, they have proven both difficult and costly. They also require the Chapel’s closure, according to Goodrich.  

“These renovations were done as part of a larger planned maintenance program for the building that began in 2019, and the improvements were funded by a designated gift,” he wrote.

Other ongoing renovations include refinishing the floors and replacing the lighting for environmental efficiency. Over the summer, workers removed all of the chapel’s pews and refinished them off-site; they have now been reestablished in the Chapel, according to Goodrich.

“It’s quite a complicated process. There’s a wooden part to the floor and a beautiful mosaic, which had to have its own separate treatment,” Richards said. “The interior of Sage is a work of art.”

When the University reopened last fall, it converted Sage Chapel into a COVID testing site, delaying the process of renovations halfway through and inviting heavy pedestrian traffic into the building. 

The University chose to reclose the Chapel for spring 2021 to continue refurbishment efforts and begin work on the organ in earnest. 

During Sage Chapel’s closure, student organizations and classes have been unable to use it at all. Richards has taken her classes to the organ in Anabel Taylor Chapel, and some of her students practice in churches throughout Ithaca. 

Cornell University Chorus, which has rehearsed in the chapel since 1959, has had to disrupt the historical practice and use Zoom. 

“We had to go in and retrieve everything we thought we might need for the semester because we weren’t allowed in there [while it was being used] as a testing site,” said Maggie Lin ’21, president of the Cornell University Chorus. “We now have rehearsals online via Zoom, and last semester we were able to do some in-person outdoor singing.”

Richards expects the chapel to be completed by the time COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, which may allow the Chorus to return.

“Sage Chapel is a bit of an anomaly within the Cornell administration, because it’s not really owned by any powerful or rich entity,” Richards said. “So we all need to be looking out for that building. It needs and deserves real, long-term care, something that would be made possible by a significant alumni gift.”