Over time our blog has attracted the attention of people with similar interests, rather than just our personal friends and family. On occasion, we receive suggestions of places to go check out and we then do our own research to determine if it is something we would be into. Other times we receive suggestions from people who are as big of nerds as we are, who do their own research into cool and unique people and places, and it is these suggestions we don’t think twice about and follow up on as soon as possible. This second group is where I would place my friend Cait who I have worked with at my job for about the last year.
Shortly after Cait was hired where I work, she shared that she also works at the Mt. Hope Cemetery as a docent doing historical tours, plus she also once wrote an article about Spiritualism that was published in the biannual magazine Rochester History. Of course in response I had to share with her about the blog I help write, which Cait now follows regularly. Ever since then, Cait and I have struck up a friendship and we very often share our journeys of exploring Rochester with each other. One day while at work, Cait emailed me that the Mt. Hope Cemetery was having a once in a lifetime opportunity to view their 1912 South Chapel to commemorate the cemetery’s 175th Anniversary. Cait had previously shared with me before that she very often explored the outside of the chapel while in-between tours at the cemetery and that her husband was super crazy about wanting to get inside. However, when I received this email, I became a bit disappointed because I was receiving it on a Wednesday and it was about a one-time opportunity to view the inside of the chapel that immediate Saturday, and it was only open from 11:00 am – 12:00 pm….and that was it, take it or leave it. Unfortunately, I had to leave it since it was too short of notice for me, but at the very least I could tell Chris. However, Chris also was unable to make it so I simply asked Cait to send me a picture of the place and wished her luck.
That following Saturday I was sitting at my desk at work when I received an email from Cait that included a picture of the inside of the chapel. Needless to say, my response is inappropriate to write here, but I was very jealous and upset that I was not able to be there to see the chapel. It was right then and there that I knew I would be asking Cait to write a guest blog post, so here is the post that my friend Caitlin Powalski and her husband William Chesebro wrote about the 1912 South Chapel in Mt. Hope Cemetery:
Most of our friends do not spend weekends roaming cemeteries or make stops on road trips to check out deserted looking cemeteries, but it’s a constant for us. So when Cait texted Will, “The Mt. Hope chapel is open for an hour tomorrow. You want to go?” “Hell ya!” was his instant response, even though we had a wedding one of us was in that day. That one-hour window to cross off an ultimate bucket-list item (one that is never otherwise open to the public) was a no-brainer for us. The 1912 chapel was open as part of the 175th Anniversary of Mt. Hope Cemetery. We’re just bummed we didn’t have a better camera.
While most, perhaps, would not respond so energetically about checking out an old mortuary chapel in a cemetery, we are history nerds that have a history with the Victorian style Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. We have spent a lot of time wondering what it would be like to see inside the chapel. We walk by it nearly every time we are in the cemetery. South End Cemetery Tours, for which we are tour guides, start near the chapel. Sure, you can find pictures online, but it’s just not the same.
If someone asked Will, “Hey, would you live in that old chapel?” he would respond even more excitedly; it’s an incredible structure. Getting to go inside proved to be an awesome experience, too. We think Luke and Chris missed out ….
Constructed in 1910, the Gothic Revival-style chapel opened to the public in 1912. The price tag was $75,000 at the time, which – according to the Department of Labor – would be equal to about $1.8 million today.
With a brick interior and sandstone exterior, old English Oak rafters and pews, and an Italian marble chancel, the price tag is understandable. Andrew and John Foster Warner, prominent father and son architects from Rochester, planned it. They are also credited with designing the Mt. Hope Cemetery Gatehouse, the George Eastman House, the Sibley Building, the Rochester Savings Bank, and city hall buildings both in Rochester and Buffalo. The Warner men are buried in Mt. Hope. Want to know where? Interment records are available online.
Will has tossed the idea around with Cait – what if we did live there? With seating for 200 people, entertaining would be no problem. The stain-glassed windows provided ample light even on the cloudy day we visited. This is good, because our pictures suggest electricity with the current chandeliers might be questionable. Chris and Luke often mention stained glass windows…Tiffany windows? No idea, but the windows are incredibly good shape given the current run down and neglected status of the chapel. (However, there is at least one Tiffany stone in Mt. Hope—visit Wilbur Coon’s burial site). The crypt below the chapel – with room for up to 275 caskets – would be quite the “man-cave.” The large storage capacity relates to the impossibility of winter burials at the time; if one died in the winter, there was no way to appropriately dig into the ground, so families had to wait for closure until the warmer seasons.
There is a hydraulic lift for bringing caskets up for services and from storage. The lift is in the center of the aisle, in front of the chancel, and can also be seen in this video. In fact, it is described as a mortuary chapel because it was built and designed solely for this purpose, not for having a regular congregation. There are 350,000 people buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery (the current city of Rochester population is about 210,855), so it is safe to conclude that the storage space was in demand. The Gothic style doors and chandeliers provide a truly medieval atmosphere. This atmosphere would surely have been amplified by the 1910 Austin Organ Company pipe organ that now sits in decay.
The chapel itself was decommissioned in the late 1970’s and is not open to the public, so it is truly a privilege to see past the boarded up windows and doors to the interior. Even though we were confined to the entry way, we are glad we took the opportunity to cross this item off our bucket list. The architecture of the chapel is inspiring, even in its current deteriorated state. There have been talks about efforts to restore the 1912 chapel. We hope it happens!
History note about Mt. Hope: Mt. Hope is a Victorian style, public cemetery which opened in 1838. At the time, Mt. Hope was seen as far away from downtown Rochester (about a mile). The land, carved out by receding glaciers, was unsuitable for farming, but worked for burials. Unlike many colonial cemeteries, Victorian cemeteries were built as parks. The landscape was intentionally left as it was and not leveled. On the tombstones, we see a change in funerary art, too. Instead of skulls and crossbones, death in the Victorian era is viewed as a more peaceful rest, the next step in life, and we see redemption and hope for seeing loved ones again. That the turn of the century would round out with a new chapel seems appropriate given Mt. Hope’s history.
If you have not visited the cemetery yet, historical tours are offered year round by the Friends of Mt. Hope Cemetery. The tours highlight not only the names we all know, like Susan B Anthony and Frederick Douglass, but many of Rochester’s other leaders and entrepreneurs. The Friends are also responsible for much of the restoration and historical preservation of the cemetery. Come visit us!
*Sources include those sites linked above and the “Interesting Facts about the 1912 Chapel” pamphlet we received when we visited.