Charles Warren Callister, the architect who designed the Mills College Chapel, died on April 3, just months after visiting the campus.
“He has such a passion in life,” said Director of Spiritual and Religious Life Erika Macs about Callister. “At 91, there was still a sparkling energy. He was still working on projects until he died.”
According to his obituary in The Architect’s Newspaper, Callister’s Bay Area buildings won many awards, including a San Francisco Art Commission Award of Honor in 1983.
This December, Mills held a question and answer session with Callister in the Chapel.
Macs helped organize that gathering because many people were asking her about the Chapel and its architect.
Callister expressed an interest in visiting the Chapel, which he said was his favorite building that he designed. Mills officials agreed to a visit.
“We had a sense that at 91 – and [his] having not been in the chapel for years – we had a sense that this was his last visit,” Macs said. “And as it turns out, it was.”
According to his obituary, Callister wrote that he designed his buildings to achieve a “spiritual, and natural environment in creating together appropriate designs . that are rooted in the nature of the clients.”
The Mills College Chapel brochure suggests this sort of environment when it describes the building as “all warm cedar and rough brushed aggregate, brought to life by the leaf-dappled sunlight pouring in through low walls of glass doors which open onto outdoor patios.”
Macs said that Callister’s design focused on space and shape, such as making the building circular in order to enhance the sense of community.
He also had space in mind when he designed the floor.
“The floors slope up toward the altar at the center, so that the worshippers do not look across at the other members of the congregation, but slightly upward toward the spatial volume,” Callister wrote to Macs.
Callister’s obituary said that he finished work on the Mills Chapel in 1958, but the College’s Chapel brochure says that the building was completed in 1967. The latter date is also painted on the Chapel wall.
Robert Anderson, professor of Anthropology, was there when the Chapel was first being built. He said that the Chapel used to be what is now called Westmore Lodge. In the 1960s, the chaplin, Dr. George Hedley, helped fund and create a more centralized chapel.
Hedley hired Callister because “he wanted the best person he could find as an architect, because he wanted it to be an avant-garde facility,” Anderson said. “And so it was not only built, but it was unique, with its circular design and other features.”
According to a 1962 House & Home article, unique designs are one of Callister’s signature marks: “the strong sculptural forms of his roofs…the interplay of straight and curved lines…the lofty and the dramatic interior spaces.”
Macs said that Callister may have passed away, but “his sparkling spirit lives on in his creations.”