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Originally published August 10, 2009 at 12:24 AM | Page modified August 10, 2009 at 6:29 PM

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Bastyr Chapel architect sets record straight on acoustics

Don Van Wieringen's first major assignment as a new architect was to help design the acoustics for the St. Thomas Seminary chapel, and 50 years later it's become renowned as a recording space and a place for live performances.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

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Don Van Wieringen has kept the architectural plans for St. Thomas Seminary in his basement for almost 50 years. But when he unrolled them on the former altar of the seminary chapel last month, he had no trouble remembering all the details of how he helped design the space.

It was, after all, his first major assignment as a newly graduated architect — and one that came with a big challenge from Seattle Archbishop Thomas Connolly: to make the space as acoustically perfect as possible.

Fast-forward to last month, when Van Wieringen, 82, read a story in The Seattle Times about the chapel's renowned acoustics. Officials at Bastyr University, which now owns the chapel, speculated that the acoustics were a lucky design fluke. Van Wieringen decided he needed to set the record straight.

The acoustics were the result of a deliberate, painstaking design process, including numerous experiments with the help of audio-equipment experts, acoustics salesmen and even paint manufacturers.

And all of this happened 50 years ago, when acoustical engineering was not well understood by architects, and professional consultants were unheard of.

Van Wieringen, a trim man with ramrod-straight posture and a head of full white hair, visited the chapel in July with his wife, Leota, to show a group of Bastyr University officials around.

With a twinkle in his eye, he told how his boss, Ralph Lund, "decided to sic me on the archbishop" — Archbishop Connolly — and put much of the design work in the young architect's hands.

He knows all the details, all the reasons why the chapel sings.

Such as the height of the chapel — 48 feet. Or the type of paint on the acoustic tiles that adorn the ceiling — it's latex, which at the time was a relatively new product and was tested for its acoustic properties by the manufacturer. Or the beveled slope to the box-beam ceilings, which helped reflect sound waves.

Bastyr President Daniel Church, and an entourage of other Bastyr officials, met Van Wieringen to hear the story of how the exquisite chapel, which is also well-known for its stained-glass windows and mosaics, came to be designed. Bastyr acquired it from the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle in 2005, after leasing the campus for nine years.

"Such an extraordinary amount of work," Church marveled. "The details are everywhere."

The Bastyr chapel, as it's now known, is renowned both for live performances and for recordings. Most recently, the Academy Award-winning score to the movie "Brokeback Mountain" was recorded there.

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Van Wieringen grew up in Oak Harbor, and was bedridden for a year in second grade with some form of rheumatic fever. Lying in bed, he played with a sketchbook and clay, and dreamed of designing buildings one day.

He graduated from the University of Washington's School of Architecture in the 1950s and went to work for the John W. Maloney architectural firm in Seattle.

Van Wieringen is not Catholic, but his association with Archbishop Connolly lasted for most of his career, and he helped design numerous church buildings, from convents to churches and rectories.

Officially, the chapel was designed by the principal architect, Lund, who died in the 1990s. But as a kind of understudy, Van Wieringen not only did a large amount of the design work and figured out the acoustics but also was given free rein to apply an artisan's hand to numerous touches in the chapel.

He designed the plaster bas-relief motifs that run up the columns in the front of the church, and the copper doors that lead to the sanctuary. He drew and designed the dove of peace — it is meant to represent the Holy Ghost — above the baldacchino, a canopy over the altar.

When the design work first began on the chapel, Connolly, a physically imposing man with a regal, commanding air, handed Van Wieringen a snapshot of a chapel where he celebrated his first Mass.

"I don't care what the chapel looks like," Connolly told the young architect, "as long as it looks like this picture."

Van Wieringen said despite the archbishop's command, the final design did not look much like the snapshot. Still, when the hall was complete, a simple message came back from Connolly:

"The archbishop told us the chapel was everything he had hoped and prayed for," Van Wieringen said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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