Our Views: Janesville's Oakhill Cemetery chapel merits reprieve

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

It’s wonderful to see people rallying to the cause and trying to save Oakhill Cemetery’s chapel.

Proponents convinced the Janesville City Council to give the chapel a temporary reprieve. The council decided Sept. 9 to ignore a city staff recommendation to demolish the 114-year-old chapel and instead give advocates six months to raise money for repairs.

Since then, local artist Richard Snyder uncovered a virtual gold mine in the basement—original pieces missing from some of the chapel’s stained-glass windows. When lead and putty crumbled, the pieces were replaced with plain amber glass. Snyder called the thick art glass, hand-painted in greens, purples, yellows and browns, an incredible find and said when such pieces are removed, they’re usually lost forever. Snyder wants to donate some labor to help restore the windows.

The city has been cemetery caretaker since 2008, after the cemetery association disbanded. The recession crimped interest in the association’s care fund, and finances further eroded because more families are opting for cremations instead of burials.

Before this stay-of-execution, the small chapel faced a grim future. It has no water and has been used only once per year. Without gutters and downspouts, moisture damaged not only windows but the foundation and masonry joints. Architect Mick Gilbertson estimated $84,000 for minimal repairs and $379,000 for a complete restoration, including adding bathrooms and handicapped accessibility.

The chapel features the oldest Gothic Revival church style in the city, but demolition would cost only $31,000.

Still, this city has a sad history of putting the wrecking ball to historic buildings. The chapel might be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, resident Judy Adler suggested in a plea to the council.

Michael Reuter, executive director of the Rock County Historical Society, noted that the Tallmans are among famous local people buried at Oakhill. He offered to partner with the city to hold at least four annual programs using the chapel.

Tax dollars only stretch so far, and not every building can be saved, particularly when they fall into disrepair. Even if the chapel is repaired, the city would have to invest money in regular maintenance. Yet businesswoman Jackie Wood, who’s president of the historical society board of directors, wisely told the council: “It’s not always about the money. Preservation should also be part of a community plan.”

Immediate demolition would have been the easy way out. The council took the prudent step in granting advocates six months to form a plan and raise money. Anyone interested in donating labor, materials or money should contact Wood.

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