Janesville City Council will consider demolishing Oakhill Cemetery chapel

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Marcia Nelesen
Saturday, September 7, 2013

JANESVILLE--Nostalgic sentiments of the past are at odds with financial realities of the present, and Janesville City Council members must decide whether to sink thousands of dollars into the historic Oakhill Cemetery chapel that has no immediate use.

City staff recommends the chapel be demolished. The council will consider the recommendation at its Monday meeting.

The head of the county historical society, meanwhile, said he prefers the building be saved but understands budget constraints.

The Oakhill Cemetery chapel is 114 years old and is an example of the Gothic Revival church style, said Rebecca Smith, city management assistant. It is one of only a few in the city and the only one its age.

Costs range from demolishing the building for $31,345 to a full restoration at $378,824. Two other options costing $84,171 and $91,085 would pay for minimal repairs, including eaves and downspouts.

All options include the removal of the brick port cochere.

About $79,000 is available from borrowed money that already has been designated for the chapel project.

The city has been responsible for maintaining Oakhill Cemetery since 2008, when the association in charge of the cemetery ran out of money and turned it over to the city.

The building served as a chapel late into the last century.

Poor maintenance at the chapel has led to movement in the foundation and moisture damage caused from failing flashing, no downspouts and gutters, deteriorating masonry joints and poorly sealed and glazed stained-glass windows.

The recommendation to tear down the chapel was a difficult one because staff “does not take pleasure in demolishing structures,” Smith said. However, the parks division is not staffed or equipped to run a chapel, she said.

“Given the difficult financial situation the city is experiencing, the lack of interest in rental, the limited options for reuse of the building and the parks division's limited knowledge of the funeral service industry, parks recommends the building be demolished,” Smith said.

A second option would replace the roof for $84,172, and a third would add a barrier-free entrance for an additional cost of $7,000.

“It is unfortunate, but with all the priorities competing for capital funding, it is difficult to justify investing in a facility that is only used an average of once a year,” said Acting City Manager Jay Winzenz.

The city provides a basic service level at the chapel with bench seating for about 40 people. Rent is about $150.

Not all agree the building should be demolished. An ad hoc cemetery group understands the city's financial predicament but, from a historic perspective, would hate to see it torn down, Smith said.

The city's own historic commission has recommended repairing the roof and keeping or repairing the porte cochere, the red brick 1912 addition on the front of the building. The porte cochere was designed for horse and carriage use and is not wide enough for modern-day hearse vehicles.

The estimated cost to keep and repair the porte cochere is $26,000. Staff “strongly recommends” the porte cochere be removed if other repairs are made.

One resident has also contacted the city and offered to help restore the stained-glass windows.

Mike Reuter, executive director of the Rock County Historical Society, has offered to program at least four events per year in the chapel. For instance, a portable display could give information about famed individuals buried at the cemetery, or the annual cemetery walk could be expanded, he said.

The Tallman family is buried in Oakhill Cemetery, Reuter noted.

Reuter said he'd like to see any structure with historic value saved, but he acknowledged not every structure can be saved because of finances, especially after ignored maintenance.

Programming and alternative uses for the buildings are keys to their continued survival, Reuter said.

The Tallman House and the chapel face the same issues, Reuter said. The community must commit to using the structures to justify spending money for renovations and upkeep.

The historical society is willing to partner with other groups to save the chapel and create a comprehensive use plan.

 “Every city … is constantly struggling with these issues,” Reuter said.

“Not every building can be saved.

“But you also have to be mindful, it's never going to come back.”

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