For more than 30 years, Kathryn Woodward has attended an interdenominational worship service each week at the World War II-era Memorial Chapel on Fort Jackson.
Today, the chapel, along with all other World War II-era wooden buildings on Army installations across the country, is slated for demolition. They are inefficient, expensive to heat, cool and maintain, and they don’t fit the needs of the modern workplace, the Army says.
But Woodward, 92, believes the chapel should stay because in 1983 it was dedicated by then-Fort Jackson commander Maj. Gen. Albert Akers to all the soldiers who trained at Fort Jackson for service in World War II. Woodward’s late husband, Arthur, was also a World War II veteran.
The chapel — along with 16 others constructed at the fort during the buildup to World War II — were initially dedicated 75 years ago Wednesday.
“We’re trying to get an exception,” said Woodward, who is joined in the effort by many of her fellow 40 or so congregants, along with a Jewish congregation that also worships there.
The wooden barracks on Tank Hill (named for a water tank, not an armored vehicle) so familiar to soldiers who trained there from World War II through Vietnam, came down years ago. And the post headquarters located catty-cornered from the chapel on Jackson Boulevard was razed earlier this year to make way for a new Centennial Park.
“You can build another post headquarters,” Woodward said. “But you can’t replace Memorial Chapel.”
But the Army is the Army, and orders are orders. And in this era of deep budget cuts to the military, money for renovations would be hard to come by.
“It’s the cost of maintaining these old buildings,” Fort Jackson spokesman Pat Jones said of the Army’s motivation for the edict, noting that Pentagon chiefs are struggling to save vital personnel, weapons systems and facilities in the face of deep cuts.
To get an exception, the chapel would have to qualify for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, Jones said. But in a 1995 review by the S.C. Department of History and Archives — the state’s body for recommendations to the National Register — Memorial Chapel didn’t pass muster.
“The chief knock on it is the cumulative effect of modifications,” said Brad Sauls, supervisor of the agency’s National Register program.
The chapel was completed in 1941 as part of the World War II mobilization effort. There were 17 identical chapels built on the post at the same time during the rapid World War II buildup, when the fort was bursting at the seams with recruits bound for battlefields in Europe and the Pacific.
Memorial Chapel at the time was named Chapel No. 1, because of its prominent location near Post Headquarters and the Fort Jackson Museum.
Then the modifications began, according to the the 1995 archives report:
▪ A marbilized wallboard altar was installed in 1958, but was later removed and replaced with the present altar;
▪ Air conditioning was installed in 1956;
▪ Other alterations were made in 1967;
▪ In the most drastic modification, synthetic siding was applied to the building about l985;
▪ Sometime after the 1995 report, the choir loft was enclosed and turned into offices, and then storage;
▪ It’s not known if the building contains asbestos.
But while the report notes that the small, 400-seat chapel contains beautiful features such as a soaring vaulted ceiling and some rich detail, it is not unique, and the modifications further erode its historical value.
“The Chapel preserves a high degree of architectural integrity, however, it is a common building type from the World War II period that exists on many military installations across the country and does not posses sufficient architectural or historical significance to be considered eligible as an individual building,” the report states. “Nevertheless, it does possess sufficient architectural and historical significance to be recommended a contributing building in the Fort Jackson Historic District.”
But Sauls noted that, especially with the razing of Post Headquarters, “there is no Fort Jackson Historic District.”
Another chapel supporter, retired Command Sgt. Major A.B. Heidel, said the chapel’s significance should override any architectural modifications, National Register or not.
“We have old soldiers come in here with tears in their eyes saying it’s the only thing left from when they were stationed here,” he said. “And it’s a house of God. And I think God has other purposes for it.”
Fort Jackson spokesman Pat Jones said there is no timeline set for razing the chapel. And at present there is no budget for the demolition.
“It hasn’t been decommissioned because there’s no money to raze it,” he said.
That does not deter Woodward and others in their perhaps Quixotic quest to save the old chapel.
The chapel is still an active place of worship, she said, and is open for the families of graduating soldiers on the fort’s Family Days each Wednesday. About 2,000 people have toured it since it began opening on Family Days in June, according to thhe church register.
It is also the only chapel from that period that remains at the fort; although, one was moved off post to Leesburg Road and is still used as a church, she said.
But most significantly, she said, the chapel displays the flags of all the divisions that trained at Fort Jackson for World War II, including the vaunted 4th Infantry and 101st Airborne divisions. The chapel was rededicated in their honor.
“It’s a very lively chapel,” she said. “We have to try to keep it open.”
Fort Jackson’s World War II chapels
▪ 17 were built, only one remains on the fort. Another was moved to Leesburg Road.
▪ All were dedicated on Dec. 14, 1941
▪ Measured 95 feet long and 37 feet wide
▪ Constructed with slanted roofs with peaks 29 feet high and a 23-foot spire above the roof
▪ Cost $21,220
▪ Sat 400 soldiers
▪ Featured electric organs