Sinsinawa is a Native American term for “rattlesnake” or “home of the young eagle.” But in Wisconsin, it’s better known as the home of the Congregation of Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters.
Since 1847, more than 3,200 women have ascended the “Hill of Grace” to take their vows as Sinsinawa Dominicans. Today the village is still home to their worldwide headquarters, including more than 600 current and retired sisters of the Order.
In 1964 the campus, with its 1850s-vintage fort, was expanded with the construction of an 800-seat crown chapel, replete with massive 45-foot dome and transept wings.
The building’s marble and plaster interior creates an acoustical environment that works magnificently to enhance the Order’s celebrated pipe organ.
But as their needs have changed over time, those same acoustics have created a whole new set of challenges.
“It’s a beautiful facility that has always been renowned for its musical acoustics,” explains Scott Wright, president of Platteville, WI-based Lifeline Audio Video Technologies. “But in today’s world they’re using it more and more often for spoken word and piano-vocal recitals, and it simply wasn’t designed for that.”
The chapel’s also beautiful on the inside, but the acoustical challenge is readily apparent. (click to enlarge)
“It’s a very large room, with a reverb time of more than four seconds,” adds Lifeline VP Mike Mair, “and as they’ve been doing more spoken word and piano-oriented services, vocal intelligibility has become more of an issue.”
To be fair, the room was not completely without sound reinforcement. But the original decades-old loudspeaker system had never been adequate for the space.
“The reverb time was markedly longer in the middle of the room, where the dome is higher,” Mair explains, “and as a result many of the sisters were seating themselves around the edges near the transepts, where they could hear a bit better, and leaving the center of the room pretty much empty.”
An arial view of the chapel and surrounding campus. (click to enlarge)
“They had talked to many contractors over the years in an attempt to find a solution, and everyone wanted to convince them to hang large speaker clusters and treat the room acoustically,” says Wright. “That just wasn’t going to happen. This is not your typical 1,000-seat church – it’s a very special, very unique environment.
“Altering the aesthetics of the place was not open to discussion. It’s a beautiful, majestic space, and there’s simply no way you could hang a cluster of loudspeakers from this ceiling. From a structural perspective, it would have been problematic, to say the least. But beyond that, there’s simply no way they would have allowed it.”