The Straits Chapel reveals itself slowly, emerging suddenly from the woods just north of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Its white exterior and steeply pitched roof are familiar yet surprising — a slightly abstracted version of a traditional place of worship. As one steps inside, the eye is drawn towards the water of Lake Michigan, visible through a trio of massive single-pane windows, the largest of which soars 23 feet high.
“It’s very peaceful. It feels very spiritual,” says Niti Bhatt, Kohler Co.’s Principal Interior Designer, who worked on the chapel alongside Senior Project Architect Michael Olson.
All of this was the brainchild of Herbert Kohler, former CEO and current Executive Chairman, who envisioned a chapel that could be used for weddings and funerals at Destination Kohler, the five-star lakeside resort with a golf course, hotels, restaurants, and spas. Bhatt remembers how Mr. Kohler quickly drew a pencil sketch of his vision during one of their monthly meetings. “He drew a front elevation and a side elevation,” she says. “It was rough but still accurate to where we are now. He had a grand scale in mind — not huge, but it needed to feel sacred.”
The first step in the design process was choosing the location. An initial site was dropped from consideration after it became clear that it would require draining some ecologically sensitive wetlands. So the site was shifted further south, where a one-lane road weaved its way through the woods before reaching a 50-foot bluff overlooking the water, which at that point is 65 miles across — more of a sea than a lake.
Olson says the design team needed to consider coastal erosion, which occurs at a rate of 2 feet per year. “The chapel is as close to the bluff as it can possibly be,” he says. This proximity to the water is central to the whole ethos of the chapel, which is designed to emphasize the lake. The surrounding woods play an important role too, with five 12-foot windows flanking the chapel, maintaining a constant connection to its natural surroundings.
The design team kept the interior as simple as possible so as not to detract from the spectacular setting. “We didn’t want the space to fight with nature. We want it to be a canvas for the beauty around it,” says Bhatt. White-painted wood battens echo the exterior, which is made of steel battens of the same dimensions. Raw concrete floors provide a neutral backdrop to hand-carved wooden pews, which have dark blue cushions in the same shade as the carpet that runs down the aisle and around the altar.
“For the interiors, we went with a clean, white, modern box, but we wanted to create a carpet that has a color to it,” Bhatt explains. “We had a few different options and ended up with this dark blue, which is a color that doesn’t detract from weddings or funerals.”
The carpet can be removed, along with the pews and a cross, designed by artist Jordan Wanner, that’s mounted behind the altar. “It’s a very flexible space,” says Olson, who notes that Herbert Kohler was adamant that the chapel be non-denominational in order to serve people of any cultural or religious background.
Although the design is deliberately simple, a few standout elements add spark to the structure. Chief among these is the series of six cascading bells that hangs above the main entrance. “They serve as both a functional bell system and a design feature,” says Olson, explaining that the design team collaborated with the Fonderie Paccard, a 225-year-old bell foundry in France, to create them. “Each bell plays different tones based on size,” he says.
The designers worked with lighting company Evoke to create a discreet lighting system that’s hidden within the architectural articulations of the chapel, such as along the trim, to create a naturalistic effect in the evening and on dark days.
But the ample fenestration means that most of the time the chapel is flooded with natural light. The 23-foot window above the altar is another standout design feature, and a particular feat of craft. “There are really only one or two companies in the world that can make a piece of glass like that,” says Olson. “It was made in Canada and shipped down. We had to rent special equipment that allowed the construction workers to handle such a big piece of glass.”
But it was all worth it. “When you step inside you feel this great calm,” says Bhatt. “It’s very serene.”