Friday, October 10, 2014

There is No Reason to Restore the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel

I digress from my typical blog subject matter to discuss…

In a recent online “discussion”, a small number of folks, including myself, briefly pondered the notion of restoring the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel. It is a subject that seems to generate a lot of passion from folks that appreciate old buildings. The chapel has been defunct and has survived an assault of neglect and vandalism. These conditions might force most buildings to be demolished. This hasn’t been the case for the chapel and a small group of preservationists, the Historic Oakwood Cemetery Preservation Association (HOCPA) organized around the idea of preserving the cemetery, has worked with the owners to maintain the chapel. Unfortunately, for years, little has been done to make it anything more than a preserved ruin.
Oakwood Mortuary Chapel, Oakwood Cemetery, Syracuse, N. Y. from Picturesque Oakwood (1894).
The chapel is part of a large historic non-sectarian rural cemetery, Oakwood Cemetery, in the city of Syracuse. Like the chapel, much of the cemetery is in various states of ruin and dis-repair. Given its historic nature and size, it requires an immense amount of maintenance. Over the years, there seems to have been a battle of wills and of resources to maintain and preserve the cemetery and its monuments. Newspaper accounts show that the current owner has had its fiscal practices in regards to facilities upkeep questioned. This, coupled with the fact that the cemetery has already rejected state funds for building upkeep, seems to reflect a less than enthusiastic restoration position on the part of the owner.
View of rear of chapel from atop the underground receiving vault. Photo by Eric Payne.
Every group or municipality that advocates for historic preservation has compiled and publicizes some sort of list that aims to educate people about why they should preserve buildings. They typically focus on cultural vibrancy, the environment, impossible-to-replicate craftsmanship, neighborhood continuity, and a number of economic principles. There are some older buildings that are of a particularly type, size, location, and intrinsic artistic value that make the argument for preserving them very easy. Then there is the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel.

Unlike most structures, there is no obvious “reason” to preserve the chapel. A mixed use structure originally housing a crematorium, receiving vault, and chapel, it has outlived its use. Modern funerary practices typically performs these functions away from cemetery grounds. Given how unique the structure is and its relatively remote location, its re-use scenarios are limited, at best. A visitors center, filming and photography venue, or exhibit space are hardly going to generate an income that would make a compelling argument for restoration.  

So why would anyone preserve a structure like this? I think the answer finds its roots in some of the reactions that I saw the other day in the online conversation. People seem to have a general attraction to this building. It is a very compelling piece of architecture in a very rare, almost exotic, landscape setting. It is also unique because relatively few structures of this type were ever built. Since the designer of the structure was a very talented one, it is also imbued with a plethora of artistic design touches that are lacking in modern structures. I think that is at this level that the building appeals to people and may be the reason for its salvation.

Construction on the chapel started in 1879 and was championed by Elias Leavenworth. Leavenworth was a local lawyer, politician and one time mayor of the City of Syracuse. He lived in a conspicuously designed Greek-revival mansion on fashionable James Street and had civic beautification at the forefront of his personal and public agenda. Throughout his career, he championed the development of public parks throughout the city of Syracuse and personally funded the introduction of plants, sculptures, fountains and other improvements on those public grounds. He was one of the proponents of the establishment of Oakwood cemetery and was personally involved in the design and construction of the mortuary chapel. He also hired the chapel’s architect to design his own mausoleum in the same cemetery.
The Syracuse Savings Bank Tower, where Silsbee had his offices. Photo by C. Payne.
The Oakwood Cemetery Association hired local architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee as its designer. Silsbee had skyrocketed to fame at a young age, designing two of Syracuse’s finest landmarks, the Syracuse SavingsBank and White Memorial Building before the age of 28. The chapel was completed in 1880 and within a few years, Silsbee had achieved national acclaim for his work. His designs were in such high demand that he set up offices in Buffalo and Chicago, moving to Chicago in 1884. He has gone down in the history books because of his association with America’s greatest architect. In 1887, he was the first Chicago architect to give young Frank Lloyd Wright a job. This was due to Silsbee’s design of another chapel, for Wright’s uncle, in Spring GreenWisconsin.  
Silsbee's design for Unity Chapel, Spring Green, Wisconsin (1885).
Given how it was conceived and the people involved with its conception, it is no surprise that the chapel has retained its aesthetic appeal for over one hundred and thirty years. The chapel has exemplary artistic merit, as far as old buildings are concerned. It was designed by a master architect and built by one of Syracuse’s most talented contractors, William Dickison. It is composed of intricately carved and detailed local limestone and accented with imported granite. The decorative motifs are a playful array of classical, exotic and macabre elements. Spider webs and foliate forms grace the exterior and a large dragon in the form of an “O,” for “Oakwood," graces the pediment at the base of the chapel’s seventy foot tall tower. The interior boasts a high degree of carpentry work with ornamental beams, ceiling and trim that echo forms seen on the exterior of the structure. The floor is part wood and partially laid with art-tiles. At one point, the building was also home to an array of beautiful art glass. 
"O" for Oakwood dragon in the pediment of the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel tower.
One also should not ignore that the vacancy and deterioration of the chapel are also part of what make it attractive. We love ruins. From Alcatraz to the Coliseum, many people have an attraction to buildings in a state of decay. There is a sublime character in them that speaks to an inner part of us in a way that many new or restored buildings cannot. They retain an overt sense of use that allows us to viscerally understand and imagine the history of a place. What better way to illustrate this sublime character of ruins than by experiencing an intricately designed mortuary chapel, in a bucolic setting. A primary challenge for the chapel restoration is the building’s condition and coming to terms with it as a high-grade architectural artifact and a romantic structure in a state of ruin.
"Dedication Valley", Oakwood Cemetery in winter (2009). Photo by C. Payne. 
Another challenge facing possible restorers is the technical aspect of rectifying the current condition. Its construction location, built into a hillside, makes it particularly susceptible to moisture infiltration. Years of neglect, leaking roofs and vandalism have also taken their toll on the building. That said, many of the historic features of the structure are still intact including the exterior stone work, vaulted wood ceiling of the porte-cochere, interior wood ceiling and wainscot, glazed brick walls and tile floors. Much of it is in a state of disrepair but none of it seems to be beyond the point of no return.     
Damaged retaining wall and boarded windows at the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel. Photo by Eric Payne.

Syracuse seems to be on the verge of an awakening when it comes to recognizing its built environment as a resource. Seeing itself in an economic challenge to maintain its 156 year old mansion, in 2009, the Corinthian Club turned over ownership of the Barnes-Hiscock Mansion to the George &Rebecca Barnes Foundation. Along with ownership came the primary mission to restore and preserve the landmark structure as a one of a kind events venue and house museum. In the summer of 2012, the Everson Museum and the L. & J. G. Stickley Company announced a partnership that would restore the Gustav Stickley home and embark on a cooperative approach to exhibits and cultural outreach. Both the Barnes-Hiscock Mansion and Stickley home are signs that there are people in the Syracuse that recognize the historic capital inherent in these structures and the willingness to invest in them for long term cultural and economic gain.
Two very different historic interiors: The Stickley Residence (left) and the Barnes-Hiscock Residence (right).
One only needs to look two hours west of Syracuse, in Buffalo, to see how a community has dramatically turned around its image, using its cultural resources as an asset. A rust-belt city with plummeting employment rates, notoriously bad weather, and a Super Bowl record in the 1990’s that did all but solidify its reputation as a “losing city”, Buffalo seemed an unlikely place for any sort of cultural awakening. Regardless of these setbacks, the city has put its best architectural foot forward with restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s exemplary Prairie School home, the Darwin D. Martin House along with landmark downtown renovation projects at Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building and Louise Bethune’s LaFayette Hotel. It has championed its waterfront and “Silo City”, a wasteland of hulking industrial grain elevators, with performing and visual arts pieces and arts education programming. Two crowning events occurred in 2011, when it hosted the National Preservation conference and in 2013, when it played host to the National Society of Architectural Historians Conference. This week, it announced plans for renovation of its mammoth “Richardson Complex” into a hospitality and heritage tourism center. Buffalo may never be the economic powerhouse that it was at the turn of the century but it is has aggressively staked a claim as a premier architectural and cultural destination and it is a far cry from where it was as short as twenty years ago. 
Image of Oakwood Mortuary Chapel in a manicured Oakwood Cemetery from Art Work of Syracuse (1899).

Syracuse may not have the cultural or economic resources of a city like Buffalo but the kinds of City-University partnerships that are developing the Connective Corridor, the Onondaga Creek Walk and other public amenities coupled with institutional and private development of individual historic structures has the possibility of creating its own tipping point. Restoration of Stickley’s home and the Barnes-Hiscock mansion, with their remarkable craftsmanship and design, give Syracuse the ability to carve out its own nationally significant story when it comes to architectural heritage. The question that remains is whether enough people in Syracuse will get behind these restoration efforts with their own time and/or money so that, as a community, they can embark on a broad approach and begin preserving other sites like the Oakwood Mortuary Chapel. There may not seem to be immediate practical reasons for doing so but there may be a long term one. 

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