The Abraham S. Kay Spiritual Life Center
Hurst Anderson, American University president from 1952 to 1968, was very much attuned to the need for a spiritual life center. An adequate campus chapel was one of his central priorities - and he knew exactly where he wished to situate it: at the north end of the university's central quadrangle, where it would plainly and unquestionably represent the importance of religious faith to the life of the university. He also knew that to build a chapel of the sort he envisioned would cost $300,000 to $400,000 - numbers that may sound less than daunting in 2003 but that loomed very large in 1960 to a president facing enormous uphill financial battles.
Years after his retirement, Anderson wrote an informal memoir describing events experienced along the way of his life as a teacher and as president of two colleges plus American University. For a variety of reasons, he avoided identifying people by name in this memoir, but in one instance there can be little doubt about the identity of the person he describes:
I invited an extremely wealthy gentleman who had no school affiliation to assume membership on our board. He wanted to know why I wanted him and I was very frank to tell him that I needed him as a partner in the further development of this fine institution. I said, "It will cost you some money, but you'll be a part of the action and I would guess that you'll enjoy it." After a period of time and several conversations he agreed. He was elected and took his seat with forty others who were already largely committed to our development goals. I didn't bother him for three months; so he called one day to ask me why I had not asked him to do his part financially. I replied that I, in fact, was working for him and not he for me, and that I was assuming that when the spirit moved him he would tell me what he wanted to do and contribute. "Well," he said, "if that's the story I'll give you an answer in a couple of weeks." He invited me for lunch at the end of that time. He had a copy of the University's master development plan which he had been studying. I just relaxed and let him lead in the discussion. He was ready. "I've been going over this plan and I think it is excellent. I can see that you are going to need a number of things and I want to make a suggestion. I'm not an educated man as you are, but I have a fundamental feeling that if we are trying to project the best of our heritage we cannot overlook the religious tradition. I've tried to be a good churchman; I believe that we should have that interfaith chapel built at the earliest time and if you are willing I'd like to build it. The sooner we at it the better, for I want the experience of seeing it go up and become useful on this already beautiful campus.
"There is one problem. You know that I am a Jew and your institution has a Protestant background. Can you get by with this?" I looked at him and thanked him for his frankness, but assured him in no uncertain terms that this made his gift even more readily acceptable, for he must know that our student body was made up of people of many faiths and that nowhere better could they live together and grow together than on a university campus; that in fact this should be one of the by-products of our intellectual experience together. We employed suitable architectural talent and this center is now one of the very much used buildings on a campus of 15,000 students. Needless to say, this inter-faith center bears the name of the donor. (Hurst Robins Anderson: "An Educational Journey," pp. 62-63)
The name, of course, is that of Abraham S. Kay, who as a boy of 10 years had emigrated to the United States and to Washington, D.C. with his family from Vilna, Russia. Here in America, his was an almost classic story of a youngster forced by family economic circumstances to drop out of school at age 12 in order to work in a grocery store at a salary of $2 per week. In due time he owned his own store at Sherman Avenue and Girard Street, Northwest, and in the 1920s organized the District Grocery Society. Later he entered the building business and became a major builder of homes, apartment houses, and office buildings in the greater Washington area. And, having prospered, Abraham Kay wanted to give back.
Inevitably, there were those who questioned why a university so clearly anchored in the Methodist tradition would agree to having an interfaith chapel at the heart of its campus. This, after all, was a university which only 10 years previously had further strengthened its ties to the Methodist Church, requiring the church's prior approval of all trustee nominations, making all university property, real and personal, subject to terms and provisions of the Methodist Church's legal code, requiring any proposal for charter amendment to receive prior approval by the church, and stipulating that any violation of these provisions would trigger a reversion of all real and personal property of the university to the Board of Education of the church. No other Methodist-related university in the land was so closely related, so intimately bound, to the church. Yet, when the time finally arrived for a chapel to be built, it was to be, by its architecture and design, not a place solely for Protestant Christian worship, but an interfaith structure, capable of becoming a Christian sanctuary, a Jewish synagogue, a Christian Science lecture hall, an Islamic mosque - or simply a hall in which all sorts of community and community-building events might take place. And it was not to be the gift of a Methodist, but of a devout Jewish layman who caught and believed in the spirit of what this Methodist lay president was trying to achieve.
Hurst Anderson and Abraham S. Kay were in total agreement as to the need. Both were men of open heart and great vision. Religiously sensitive, both were men whose religious faith allowed the possibility that other religious insights were equally deserving of respect, their adherents equally children of God.
The Kay Spiritual Life Center was built, according to language printed on its groundbreaking ceremony program to:
"stand at the head of the campus quadrangle in a place of unique prominence, symbolizing the importance of the worship and service of God in the aims of the University, and bearing witness to a belief in religious freedom which is in accordance with one of the best features of American life... The policy of the University has always been to provide high quality education in an atmosphere of free inquiry to students regardless of faith. As a cosmopolitan institution with students from various parts of own nation and from far corners of the world, the University feels the need for allowing all to worship as their conscience may dictate, and to meet for discussion of religion and for fellowship... [The Kay Spiritual Life Center will provide a place for] the sharing of different faiths and denominations, and will allow more fully for encounter, for questioning, and for seeking..."
An initial design, very traditional in concept, was rejected, and the well-known ecclesiastical architect A. Hensel Fink, among whose many buildings are those of neighboring Wesley Theological Seminary, was retained. Fink's was an altogether different, and very functional, approach to the problem. Essentially circular in conception, the building had an upper floor consisting of a chapel designed to seat 288 people, two small meditation chapels, two meeting rooms, a sacristy, and storage facilities for altar furniture, all of it on casters, so as to make it easily moved into place for the changing needs of the various religious communities. A pipe organ designed by the Moeller Company of Hagerstown, Maryland, was well matched to the space and over the years has not only provided music fore religious services but has also served as an excellent practice instrument for organ students.
On the circular north wall, behind the platform, five stained glass windows were created by Odell Prather to represent the Creation. From left to right, the first window impressionistically depicts the Eye of God, from which emanate lines of power and photons of light. At the bottom of the window are clouds of dust and gases beginning to gather. In the second window, circling clouds are coalescing into an infant sun, white-hot in its center, and below it, there is another cosmic whirlpool. While the artist resisted too specific descrptions of the remaining three windows, the center one speaks of the creation of sun, moon, and planets; the fourth reflects the creation of Earth, with violent reuptions of geysers and volcanoes; and the fifth suggests torrential rains, below which the processes of sedimentation and ultimately of life take place. Smaller side windows suggest, to the left, the scientific victories of humankind, and on the right, the unconquerable spiritual immensities, at the center of which stands the tiny flame of human learning.
Writing in the Washington Post on October 26, 1965, music critic Paul Hume observed:
"Those who regularly pass by American University at Ward Circle have been watching in recent months the completion of a circular building of intruiging design ... Its interior, which can be furnished suitably for a variety of religious services, is, when not so adorned, a simple but attractive setting for music ... In its first concert last night, the musicians ... were seated on chairs that stood on a raised wooden platform which, in turn, was placed in the center of a gently concave space. Behind them was a wall of wood and plaster and slender stained glass windows, all of which act as excellent reflectors for sound. It is the nearest sound to that of the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress that I have heard anywhere in Washington."