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Eero Saarinen's MIT Chapel and the first couple to wed there

A tale of kismet and modernist matrimony

Inside Eero Saarinen’s MIT Chapel, which opened for services in 1955.
Photo via Flickr Creative Commons

In 1955, architect Eero Saarinen unveiled a small nondenominational chapel at Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), alongside a performance space called Kresge Auditorium.

The windowless chapel embodies Saarinen’s modernist vision: A brick cylinder with a 12-foot-wide moat, it bears a resemblance to Buffalo, New York’s Kleinhans Music Hall, which Saarinen built with his father Eliel between 1938 to 1940. Though it’s more contained than the soaring, Jet Age masterpieces for which the younger Saarinen would gain recognition, it’s no less uplifting.

In February, the chapel’s moat is filled with snow and its interior is unexpectedly bright: Sunlight gleams off the drifts, through glass panels along the floor’s perimeter and the white-marble altar. Outside, a sign advertises Catholic mass, Shabbat services, and a Buddhist community meditation. Kresge Auditorium lies across the blanketed quadrangle.

The wedding of Piet Bos and Mary Lynn Smoot, captured by a photographer from The Cleveland Press. Bos and Smoot were the first couple to be married at Saarinen’s chapel.
Courtesy Daisy Alioto

Late last year, indulging an obsession with trawling eBay for interesting architectural photography, I came across a wedding photo that stopped me in my tracks.

The snapshot was of Piet Bos and Mary Lynn Smoot, the first couple married in the MIT Chapel. They were photographed at the altar, illuminated by the honeycomb-shaped skylight, light from which glinted against a cascading metal sculpture by Harry Bertoia.

The moment—captured by United Press International—ran in newspapers all over the country, including The Cleveland Press, whose copy I got on eBay for $38 (plus shipping).

“You must be a romantic to make this effort of locating me,” wrote Bos when I tracked him down for the story behind the photo. The tale didn’t disappoint.

In May of 1945, when Allied forces finally succeeded in liberating The Netherlands, Bos was thirteen years old, six feet tall, and severely undernourished. The winter prior would be remembered as the Hongerwinter (Hunger Winter) for the famine that took as many as 22,000 Dutch lives, and left other countrymen subsisting on tulip bulbs.

After the war, Bos was sent to Edinburgh to recover among nutrition specialists. He was sponsored by an American family, to whom he wrote letters. Although his benefactors were anonymous, the teen held their redacted letterhead to the light in order to find out their identity. In this way, Bos became acquainted with Helen and Harold Smith of Fredonia, New York.

Across the ocean, a recent New Yorker was busy hoarding his way toward a historical collision with the Dutch boy. A decade earlier, German Jew Dr. Otto Bettmann fled the Third Reich with two trunks of treasured prints and photographs he’d been collecting. German officials, seeing no value in this budding archive, did not confiscate it. (This will become important later.)

Bos was the child of laborers, but with the help of the Smiths he was able to continue his education beyond elementary school. He attended high school in The Hague and started classes at the Delft University of Technology before applying for a scholarship at MIT and transferring. As Bos made preparations to emigrate along with his parents—all sponsored by the Smiths—another European immigrant was making plans in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Eero Saarinen.

Speaking at the dedication of the MIT Chapel and Kresge Auditorium in 1955, Rev. Dr. Theodore P. Ferris called the pair of structures “a sign of a change in climate.” He echoed earlier praise for the buildings as a union of science and the humanities at MIT.

“The doors that science so graciously opened have led us into mysteries far vaster than our fathers ever dreamed of, and instead of solving the riddle of life, it has extended it to include not only ourselves and our strange and unpredictable ways, but also the origin and the meaning of life itself,” Ferris proclaimed.

Bos’s transatlantic voyage to America swept him into a life beyond what his parents could have provided for him. Upon disembarking from the S. S. Nieuw Amsterdam in New York City he was appraised by Mr. and Mrs. Smith who took him straight to the Waldorf Astoria (only after furnishing him with a new pair of jeans and a hamburger). It was his first time in a hotel—and in a car. Piet goes by Peter now, and has lived in California for over four decades.

At MIT, Bos threw himself into studies of aeronautical engineering. He met a Pine Manor College graduate and former stewardess named Mary Lynn Smoot in the campus library and they fell in love. However, Cold War conscription was in full swing and Bos could not defer if he wanted to keep the security clearance his aeronautics work required. At a crossroads, the couple decided to get married. “It was kind of impromptu,” says Bos, “very impulsive at the time.” They were married in the newly dedicated MIT Chapel. David Smith, the son of Bos’s adopted parents, was their best man.

The United Press International photo of the wedding, now owned by Getty, became a part of Dr. Otto Bettmann’s careful archive which eventually spanned scenes like “Winston Churchill giving the victory sign, an astronaut on the moon, Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue, [and] Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate as her skirt blew up.” By the time the archive was sold to Bill Gates—yes, that Bill Gates—in the 1990s, it totaled a stunning 16 million images.

Bos himself had never seen the photo until I emailed him in January, and might have struggled to identify his own back if it weren’t for the familiar glint of David Smith’s glasses. In 2015, Bos self-published his book The Road to Freedom and the Demise of Nation States which he dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He’ll be 85 in May.

MIT Chapel, seen in a 2010 photo.
Photo via

“The future probably does belong to the image,” The New York Times wrote of Dr. Bettmann in 1999. But in the case of Bos and Smoot—who divorced in 1964—it tells a limited story about the past.

“We were very young, too young, I did not become myself until I was about 30,” Bos explains, “We grew in different directions.” Both eventually remarried—Lynn died in 2013. The couple had two children, Deanna Marsh and Howard Bos. “It was not a non-love story, it just was not a lasting one,” says Peter. “They didn’t fit,” explains Marsh.

Smoot initially worked as a journalist in Oklahoma while her husband went through OCS. After the family moved to California, she stayed home to raise the kids. “She was the mother that every kid wanted,” says Marsh, “She’s my best friend.” Just as a child learns to distinguish their mother from all angles, Marsh quickly recognized the bride in the newly discovered wedding photo. She’s already been in touch with Getty about ordering copies.

Out of the greatest global trauma of the 20th century, a Finnish architect, a German collector, a Dutchman, and his American benefactors and wife came together for the preservation of one radiant moment.

“The picture remains,” says Bos, not an image of a love story, but a love story about an image. The aging news wire affixed to the back of my print is headlined simply “Modern Marriage.”