Looking to the future of its congregation, the St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church commissioned Lee Ledbetter and Associates to renovate most of the church’s ground-floor level, excluding the main sanctuary. The project accomplished multiple goals: the conversion of an existing chapel into a library and reading room; the creation of a new chapel with greater seating capacity than its predecessor; and the design of an outdoor columbarium—an above-ground structure with niches to hold crematory urns—in a garden adjacent to the original sanctuary.
The historicist modernism of architect Eliel Saarinen’s Cranbrook Academy of Art provided inspiration for the design scheme, which also takes cues from the existing Neo-Gothic sanctuary’s architectural details. Oak paneling, pilasters, and coffered ceilings within the new spaces create a common design language that unifies the historic and the contemporary. In the new chapel, an arced ceiling form, designed in response to height restrictions, gently promotes a mood of spiritual uplift, while specially commissioned stained-glass windows by Louisiana artist Stephen Wilson employ vivid colors to depict the creation story from Genesis.
The siting of the columbarium garden next to the historic sanctuary echoes the relationship of medieval cloisters to Gothic cathedrals. Designed as a walled garden, with stonework derived from the original church architecture, the columbarium contains a triple-pedestal fountain that symbolizes the Trinity. The sound of running water has the additional benefit of muffling nearby street noise. A hundred-year-old live oak shades the sanctified garden.