Mark Boone was sitting on a rock next to a natural spring on his North Raleigh property when an idea struck him.
“I just had an overwhelming sense, ‘You need to build a chapel here,’ ” Boone recalled.
Most people probably would have shrugged off the notion as a pipe dream or temporary craziness. But not Boone. He never gave up on the idea. Not for 14 years.
Now Boone wants to build a 6,000-square-foot underground chapel – yes, underground – that he hopes will serve as a place where people can reflect and “quiet themselves.”
The plan is to carve the chapel out of the granite below Boone’s seven-acre property off of Ebenezer Church Road. He envisions a space, nestled beneath the earth, filled with art and other things that could offer a glimpse thousands of years from now about how people once lived in Raleigh.
Boone has enlisted help from an architect in Spain, who visited the site and created drawings. His next step is to raise $5 million for the project and then to start the engineering phase.
Boone, 63, who owns a contract manufacturing company, knows all this might sound strange.
“It’s kind of a weird idea, really,” he said. “Who would do that? ... The only reason I can think is that it’s so firmly pressed in my mind.”
While his faith is important to Boone, he’s not the kind of guy who shoves religion in people’s faces.
He grew up Baptist, taking part in youth groups and the choir. After college at N.C. State University, he eventually joined a Presbyterian church, where he met his wife, Joanne, in a Sunday school class.
The couple now attend Hope Community Church, which has thousands of members at multiple campuses in Wake County. Boone said he leads a small Bible study group.
He also attends a regular gathering in Raleigh of Christian business executives.
Boone made it clear that God didn’t speak to him that day on the rock. The heavens didn’t open up and send him a go-build-a-church message.
He just figured he should act on an idea that seemed so powerful.
Xavier Vilalta, director of Vilalta Arquitectura in Barcelona, seemed like the perfect man for the job.
Boone said he heard a TED Talk by Vilalta, who is interested in how architecture can connect nature and people, and reached out to him. Vilalta visited Raleigh last month to scope out Boone’s property.
“Honestly, at first I was like, ‘Really?’ ” Vilalta said.
I asked Vilalta if he’s ever worked on such a project. An underground chapel surely poses all sorts of architectural challenges.
“I think no one has worked on a project like this, because it doesn’t exist,” Vilalta said.
Ancient underground cities have been discovered in the Middle East, but the modern world has focused on building up, not down.
A structure beneath the ground can last thousands of years, and that intrigued Vilalta. He quickly warmed to Boone’s idea.
“Immediately I understood he has very good faith and very good intentions,” Vilalta said.
So Vilalta began thinking about the logistics of getting people into an underground chapel. Instead of stairs, he designed a ramp that would wind in circles, leading people 45 feet below.
The gradual descent would allow visitors’ eyes to adjust to the darkness. Skylights would illuminate the space with natural light.
There are no right angles in the design, in an effort to keep the rock natural-looking.
The only part of the chapel visible above ground would be a large tower near Ebenezer Church Road – appropriate because Ebenezer means “stone of help.”
Last month, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest also visited Boone’s property. He was an architect for years, and he chatted with Vilalta about the plans.
Forest said he hopes Boone gets the art community involved, especially in the fundraising effort. He said the structure could become a tourist attraction.
“I think it could also be a piece of art ... a destination spot,” he said.
It’s easy to understand why Boone loves his property and wants to share its beauty with others.
Less than 10 miles from downtown Raleigh, the site features the ruins of Cook’s Mill, a grist mill that operated in the 1800s.
The Boones and their four children used to camp out on the site when they visited from their Connecticut home. They dreamed of building a house there someday.
But in 1996, Hurricane Fran wreaked havoc on the pines, cedars and other trees on the property. When he saw the wreckage, Boone had an idea: Why not use the fallen trees to build a house?
So that’s what he did, and the family’s 7,000-square-foot home was featured in The News & Observer in 2001.
A lot has happened since then on that picturesque seven acres.
Boone’s daughter and one of his sons had their wedding receptions there. Another son had his wedding rehearsal dinner.
The amphitheater in the backyard once hosted a concert to raise money for a group to drill wells in Africa, Boone said.
Every year, the Boone family puts up a large Nativity for Christmas. It can easily be seen from the road, and Boone said it’s become a well-known neighborhood tradition.
“They say, ‘Oh, that’s where that Nativity scene is,’ ” Boone said strangers tell him.
Soon, Boone hopes, the property will also be known for an underground chapel, a place where people can sit quietly below the earth, thinking and praying.