Oak Hill Cemetery Wrapping Up Chapel Work
By Katie PearceCurrent Staff Writer
The largest restoration project in decades at Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery is now finishing up, replacing the roof of the small 1853 chapel designed by James W. Renwick Jr.
The chapel, a national historic landmark located near the front entrance of the hillside cemetery, is the District’s sole example of Renwick’s Gothic Revival church style. The architect is best known for designing St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and in D.C., the Smithsonian Institution’s “Castle” building.
At Oak Hill, the nondenominational Renwick Chapel has hosted funerals for the past 164 years, with notable guests including presidents and cabinet members. The chapel has changed little since 1853, aside from replacement of its stained-glass windows in the 1880s, then later upgrades to provide electricity and heating.
“What you see is what it was,” Dave Jackson, the superintendent of Oak Hill Cemetery, said in a recent interview.
But inspection of recent water damage in the chapel’s interior ended up revealing the need for more significant repairs. “Our board said, ‘No more patching; we really got to do this right,’” said Jackson.
The restoration project, estimated to cost more than $200,000, launched this summer to replace the chapel’s mortar as well as its steep slate roof. The new purple roof tiles — the color was selected originally due to its symbolism to multiple religions — came from a quarry in Vermont.
The work, expected to wrap up completely by early next year, also includes repairs and repainting in the chapel’s interior.
“It’s one of the biggest projects for the cemetery in decades,” said architect Robert Tarasovich, who has provided technical consulting.
During the roof replacement, workers discovered a challenge. Without a substantial barrier between the exterior and interior of the roof, the construction shook off plaster decorations from the chapel’s high ceiling. But one gold-painted medallion that fell to the floor came with a surprise: the initials of Oak Hill Cemetery’s founder, William W. Corcoran.
“We didn’t know it was up there,” said Jackson, who intends to preserve and mount the piece. “First of all it was a miracle that it didn’t bust into a million pieces.”
Corcoran, who co-founded Riggs National Bank, was one of D.C.’s most notable philanthropists. His extensive art collection served as the foundation for the Corcoran Gallery — initially housed in the building that is now the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.
Over its history the chapel has hosted a number of significant events. An intimate second funeral for President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie took place there in 1862, according to an Oak Hill newsletter. In 1882, Corcoran arranged for an elaborate ceremony honoring his longtime friend, author John Howard Payne, who was buried in front of the chapel. The building was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1972.
Today the Renwick Chapel, which can accommodate pews for about 48 people, continues to be used for about 50 funerals each year, along with the occasional wedding or community meeting, according to Jackson.
More information about the cemetery, which is funded through the nonprofit Oak Hill Cemetery Preservation Foundation, is available at oakhillcemeterydc.org.
This article appears in the Nov. 27 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper. To sign up for The Current's new Wednesday morning email newsletter with a listing of the stories you’ll find in all of The Current’s editions that day, contact email@example.com.