Mountain View Cemetery considers updating chapels, adding funeral home
on July 1, 2011
Over 170,000 people were at Mountain View Cemetery on Thursday night. But only 40 people actually had a pulse and were there to discuss the potential architectural and landscape changes that could take place over the next two years to a pair of historic chapels. The overarching goal of the plans which are being suggested by the cemetery’s general manager include building and attaching a funeral home to the two Victorian-era chapels located near the entrance of the cemetery.
Neighbors, members of the Oakland Heritage Alliance and those simply interested in the future role of the cemetery sat in the pews of one the chapels that may be renovated. The Oakland Heritage Alliance, a non-profit organization, which advocates for the protection of Oakland’s historic resources, orchestrated the evening meeting. First, a team from Trachtenberg Architects presented their preliminary plans for the funeral home extension, followed by time for the public to ask questions and comment.
Jeff Lindeman, the cemetery’s general manager, spent time addressing the financial, structural and even cultural challenges of running Mountain View Cemetery. He said that the proposed architectural plans could be a solution to both the under-use of the chapels and the cemetery’s cash flow crunch.
Lindeman noted that although the cemetery serves an intrinsic role as a beautiful, historic landmark for the community to enjoy, the chapels have a greater potential to serve the community. “These chapels are totally underutilized,” he told the people sitting in the pews.
Lindeman said that he has seen the Baby Boomer generation straying away from the traditional clergy-led funeral service to ones that allow for creative expression to memorialize the deceased. As a result, more people are choosing not to utilize the chapels for services at all, and prefer holding them outdoors or in other settings. “Young people want self-expression and for everyone to participate in the grieving process,” he said.
The chapels as they stand today have high arched ceilings accented with wood trimmings. The original stained glass windows remain, along with the long, cylindrical light fixtures covered in intricate wood carvings. The chapels were originally built as a secular place to mourn loved ones before they were placed in their final resting spots. But over the years, the usage of the chapels became more sparse.
Currently, the two chapels are used less than a dozen times a year, Lindeman said, providing a meager $11,600 in revenue for cemetery operations.
Lindeman explained that the enclaves at the front of chapels separated from the rest of the pews are no longer necessary. Decades ago, they were used as a private space for family members to grieve over the deceased, distancing them from the community members who came to pay their respects. Now, Lindeman said, younger people want rituals that are more celebratory and participatory. With the new chapel plans, Lindeman said he thinks Mountain View Cemetery can accommodate that growing desire.
Part of the structural blueprint for the proposed renovations includes a 30-by-32 foot serenity garden bordering both chapels. Both of the chapels’ front walls would be taken out to put in glass panel doors that open up into the garden, providing a calming, beautiful space for those mourning to use. The funeral home would be a 2,000-foot extension jutting out from an already existing portion of the chapel area. “I object to changing it in a way that looks like a mistake,” Lindeman said.
Lindeman and the architects said that by adding on a funeral home to the two chapels, they can generate more money for retrofitting other buildings at the cemetery. Currently, people use other funeral homes to prepare and view the deceased before bringing the bodies of loved ones to Mountain View to be buried or cremated.
The cemetery currently does not have a funeral home license because it does not have the proper facilities to operate as one. If they built a funeral home attached to the chapels, Lindeman and the architects said, they could expect more people to use the chapels.
The main source of revenue for the cemetery comes from selling grave sites, which start at $14,000 and go up to $25,000 for the more desirable spots higher up on the hill with views of the Bay.
Still, Lindeman, said that revenue isn’t enough to ensure the long-term future maintenance of a historic Oakland landmark. In fifty years, the cemetery will reach capacity for housing the deceased and will need to start thinking of additional ways of bringing in revenue if staffers want keep it open for future generations of Oaklanders to enjoy.
Even if Mountain View Cemetery generates more funds from a funeral home, Lindeman said the cemetery would remain a not-for-profit organization owned by the people who buy gravesites there. An advisory board of community members governs how the cemetery is run and makes final decisions on matters like architectural and landscape changes.
Throughout the evening, the members of the public sitting in the pews took turns asking Lindeman and the architects questions about the plan. The most common questions raised were about whether or not this site is listed in the national historical sites registrar. Michael Crowe, a retired historical architect for the National Parks Service, said that’s the next stage of consulting the architects should do.
Crowe said he attended Thursday’s meeting because he wasn’t sure exactly what the chapel project was and wanted to find out more. “They may run into resistance from the National Parks Service,” he said, “and I wanted to alert them.” He also mentioned there were some parts of the chapel that had water damage and needed to be looked at by the architects before they start thinking about any future plans for construction.
Concerns from the community also included worries about whether the addition of a new building would taint the aged beauty of the chapels. “I’m concerned about how the design would really look,” said Naomi Schiff, president of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, after the meeting. The evening had offered the first detailed description she’d heard about the proposed structural changes, but, she said, “I need to know more and they need to bring in historical architects. But for now, I’ll take it on faith that it won’t be so brutal.”
Others voiced concerns about two forty-year-old deodar trees that would be knocked down if construction were to happen. But Lindeman said the cemetery staff would plant 25 redwood trees as compensation.
Schiff said there probably would have been more vocal residents at Thursday’s meeting if it wasn’t for the Oakland City Council budget vote meeting occurring at the same time. Schiff said she expects to be hearing more from the community about how they feel about this proposed construction plan for the chapel area. If there is little resistance from neighbors, then the architects expect the project to break ground in the next couple of years.
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