DEFIANCE - Local volunteers saved the historic Riverside Chapel from the wrecking ball in the 1960s. Now, they're trying to keep it from falling apart.
Water recently damaged the chapel's walls, causing plaster to peel and fall above original stained-glass windows. The 110-year-old chapel's natural wood is crying out for a coat of varnish, and its exterior needs myriad repairs.
“It's going to take a lot of work in here,” said Jean McMillen, secretary for the local group that's caring for the chapel. “It's more than meets the eye.”
Mrs. McMillen and other members of the Defiance chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution recently began a fund-raising drive to pay for repairs to the chapel and its native pine arches, Georgian marble floors, church pews, and organ.
They've collected $15,000 of a $25,000 goal to upgrade the interior and establish a restoration fund. The city, which owns the chapel that stands at the entrance to the Riverside Cemetery, is planning to pay for exterior repairs.
The restoration is major project for the group since it was responsible for saving the chapel from demolition nearly 40 years ago.
After a fire ripped through the chapel in the early 1960s, a layer of rubble and ash was left behind on the floor. Its walls were blistered from the heat, and panes of glass were blown out and had to be filled in temporarily with pieces of cardboard.
Because of the damage, the city threatened to tear it down, but the Daughters of the American Revolution fought the city to keep it standing.
“They were just going to get rid of it. But people rallied around it and saved it,” said Helen Frey, the group's registrar. “The DAR took care of getting it back in shape.”
The chapel, which includes a basement vault that can store up to 60 caskets, underwent massive renovations in the 1960s. At the time, volunteers conducted a similar fund-raising campaign to pay for the first round of repairs.
“We're proud of it, especially since it was going to be torn down and it had a fire in it,” said Marjorie Heilshorn, treasurer for the group.
The chapel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is believed to be the only one like it in the area.
In the past, the basement would be filled to its ceiling with caskets that contained bodies. The caskets typically would be stored at length during the winter, when the ground was too hard for burial.
When spring came, the caskets slowly would be raised upstairs through a hole in the floor near the chapel's altar. A piece of wood now covers that once-open space.
“At that time, it was a logical place to bury someone and have a service,” Mrs. Frey said.
The chapel is now opened to the public at least three times a year for tours. It's also used for weddings and memorial services on occasion.
Mrs. Frey said people are always samazed when they first walk through the structure, which can fill quickly with sunlight in its small, 22-by-34 foot space.
“They first thing they say is, `I've never been in here and I've lived here all my life,'” she said. “They say I just can't believe this. Isn't it beautiful?”