Our Views: Janesville preservationists should step up at Oak Hill Cemetery chapel event

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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Many Janesville residents care a great deal about historic preservation.

Take, for example, the Lincoln-Tallman House. The Tallman family gave the home to the city decades ago, and the Rock County Historical Society runs it as a museum. The city has sunk many tax dollars into upkeep, but local organizations and individuals have contributed, as well.

Consider also the Courthouse Hill Historic District on the near east side. It encompasses 30 blocks and 219 properties. Most owners care deeply about the architecture of their homes and invest in maintaining their historic integrity.

If the Tallman home is Exhibit A in Janesville's preservation efforts and the courthouse hill neighborhood serves as Exhibit B, the small, 114-year-old chapel at Oak Hill Cemetery might become Exhibit C.

The city became Oak Hill's caretaker in 2008 after the cemetery association disbanded. Earlier this year, the city staff recommended demolishing the deteriorating and little-used Gothic Revival-style chapel. In September, proponents turned out and convinced the city council to grant them six months to raise money for repairs.

Local residents and groups have rallied to the cause. They organized the nonprofit Friends of Oak Hill Chapel. In the basement, artist Richard Snyder and Jim Crittenden uncovered pieces of stained glass missing from the windows, and Snyder agreed to donate labor to help restore the panes. The historical society offered to help organize at least four annual programs that use the chapel.

Saturday brings a great chance for advocates and potential donors to get an up-close look at the chapel and its needs. The friends group will feature tours, videos and refreshments during an open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The event comes just days after chapel supporters got more good news. Assuming the chapel is repaired, the owners of the original pump organ agreed to donate it back to the church. Jon Harrie mowed at the cemetery fresh out of high school, and he bought the organ for just $5 around 1958 when the association was cleaning out the chapel. Jon told The Gazette he gave the organ to his wife, Shirley, as a wedding gift. The Victorian organ with ornate details still emits deep, rich sounds. It was manufactured by A.B. Chase of Ohio, probably in the late 1800s.

Having worked at the cemetery so long ago, Jon Harrie feels a responsibility toward the organ, and he and his wife would like to see it returned to its original place. That would be another great step toward the future for a chapel that might qualify for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

As Janesville's Jean Kutz once reasoned in a letter to The Gazette, it's easy to fall into the trap of saving buildings just because they're old. However, she wrote: “How will we honor the past if all clues and hints of the past are gone? How will we know who we are if we forget who we were?”

Residents who appreciate those sentiments shouldn't miss their chance to step forward Saturday.

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