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Cemetery chapel plans delight and irritate

Tuesday, July 7, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Plans to restore a 100-year-old city-owned chapel in Oakwood Cemetery sailed through the Historic Landmark Commission at its last meeting. But future plans for the East Austin chapel have some people worried.

The Parks and Recreation Department was seeking a certificate of appropriateness for the renovation of the 1914 chapel, which is located at 1601 Navasota St. The Historic Landmark Commission approved the certificate unanimously, with commissioners Terri Myers, John Rosato and Dan Leary absent.

Longtime cemetery advocate Sharon Blythe told commissioners that she supported the plans for renovation but had concerns about what will happen in the chapel after it is restored. Blythe quoted from a letter written by Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensley that said the chapel would be used for “weddings, parties and other activities not currently related to the cemetery operations.”

“I question whether this type of use is appropriate for that chapel,” said Blythe. “I think it’s culturally inappropriate to (have) those types of activities. … I think that it’s offensive to a lot of people.

“I think we are losing our compass and our respect for the deceased in this city if we allow weddings, parties and other activities (to rent a venue) in a public cemetery,” said Blythe.

Chair Laurie Limbacher noted that the certificate of appropriateness only concerns the physical aspects of the building, not the use.

“It’s not that we are unsympathetic to your concerns,” said Limbacher. “I’m sure, personally, many people think they are entirely appropriate. It’s just that we have to stick within our area of authority.”

Blythe also took umbrage with the fact that the public had not been informed of the proposed chapel use. She said she was concerned that the Parks and Recreation Department was moving ahead without establishing a cemetery board to review the proposed use. In her presentation, Blythe noted that the parks department has already sanctioned costumed “Halloween” events that she considered offensive.

Update: Following the publication of this story, the Monitor spoke with planner and cultural resources specialist Kim McKnight, who works in the Parks and Recreation Department. She explained that her department had not finalized any plans for the chapel, or determined what activities would be permitted. That, she said, would take place after restoration was complete and after additional community outreach.

Though city-operated cemeteries are also under the purview of the Parks and Recreation Board, the draft Cemetery Master Plan, which is currently under review by the city’s boards and commissions, recommends the creation of a Cemetery Advisory Committee.

William Hodge was at the meeting to speak on a separate case, but after seeing Blythe’s presentation, he spoke in support of her stance. He asked that the certificate of appropriateness include a provision that the chapel be used “in a manner befitting the original use.”

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the chapel is currently suffering from some issues of deterioration, including plaster failure, rotting wood elements and drainage issues. He said that one of the benefits of the restoration will be improved drainage, which will divert water away from the building.

The restoration will replace the current roof with shingles made of cedar, which is closer to the original roofing material. The city will also repaint the chapel, repair stone and plaster, and fix the floor.

“Every aspect of the project is a really good one,” said Sadowsky. “This will keep this chapel in continuous use for many more years.”

This story has been updated.

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