Chapel named historic landmark
by Joel Furfari
Mar. 15, 2001
The 85-year-old Chapel of the Incarnation in Brandywine looks just a bit out of place perched at the corner of Missouri Avenue in what once was the town's center. In fact, the chapel looks more like it belongs in Southern California than Southern Maryland.
The small Episcopal church's Mission-style architecture -- which is style introduced by Hispanic settlers in California -- was considered unique enough to this area that the sanctuary was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in December.
"I don't know of any other churches or buildings like this in Southern Maryland," said Frank Robinson, who was instrumental in getting the chapel on the national register.
He is the historian for St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in Croom, which owns the chapel. The parish's main church building in Croom was also placed on the national register at the same time.
Robinson grew up attending services at the chapel. His parents were married there, and his grandfather was a member of the chapel building committee at St. Thomas' when it was built in 1916.
Robinson said members of St. Thomas' parish wanted to build a chapel that served the families living in Brandywine at the time. They borrowed the money from a local bank for the land and building costs, and the chapel has been owned by St. Thomas' ever since.
Robinson said it's still not clear why they decided to build a Mission-style chapel. The building's Moor and Spanish influence was a radical departure from the prominent Colonial architecture of most rural Protestant chapels of that period.
It is most likely Robinson said that William J. Palmer, an architect from the District, decided to put his own unique stamp on the chapel's design.
"I think in a way, that might be a clue that he wanted to break with tradition," Robinson, who is St. Thomas' church historian, said. "He didn't want to just build another Colonial Revival church."
Susan Pearl, the historian for the MarylandNational Capital Park and Planning Commission, said it was likely that the chapel's proposed architecture was hotly debated at the time.
"The building committee certainly argued over this," she said. "There were some people who were strongly against it."
Pearl said she has not been able to find out exactly why they chose a Mission-style design. "How many people from that little Maryland town ever visited the American Southwest?" she asked.
When it was built, Palmer used poured concrete to build the walls and the chapel's façade shows the curvy lines of Spanish architecture. The simple bell tower resembles something out of a western movie.
"The front has stucco on the façade to make it look more like an adobe," Robinson said.
The interior is sparse, but flourishes such as the Moorish arches over the doorways make the sanctuary pleasing to the eye. Robinson said Palmer's architecture incorporated the building's walls, archways, ceilings and windows into one cohesive look.
"He designed it as a whole entity," Robinson said.
The chapel is also home to a baptismal font that is estimated to date back to around 1422. In the late 1980s, an English church that was set to close donated the stone font to the parish, and it has stayed at the Chapel of the Incarnation ever since.
Despite the quaint Spanish charm of the chapel, Robinson said attendance for services at the 125-seat sanctuary has been on the decline in recent years as younger family members have moved out of Brandywine.
Robinson said St. Thomas' ministers still lead Sunday morning services each week at 9:15 a.m. "We've gone through kind of a rough time, but we're trying to get the word out," he said.
During his childhood, Robinson remembered, "We had people coming here from as far away as Waldorf but they did have family ties here."
Nowadays the rear wing of the chapel is occupied by St. Thomas' Community Support Services an outreach organization.
Whether the tiny chapel is full of worshipers or not, the building speaks to a time when the county was fascinated with the American West -- and California in particular.
"There was a fascination with California," Robinson said. "There was a romance and mystery about that."