Inside the Beautiful and Breathtaking Earl Chapel at Oakwood Cemetery

Monday, December 2, 2019
Looking more like a castle than a chapel, the Earl Chapel at Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, NY, might possibly be the most stunning piece of architecture I've witnessed in New York State.  I mentioned the chapel in my earlier post about Oakwood Cemetery and hoped to be able to dedicate a post to the chapel one day and today I get to do just that.  We took advantage of this weekend's Pop-Up Tour of the chapel and I can say, it was more than anything I could have imagined.  For those who missed my previous post, I'll begin with a little history of how the chapel came to be.

Gardner Earl was the son of a wealthy Troy shirt-collar maker,William Spencer Earl. Willliam was the part-owner of Earl & Wilson in the mid 1800's in Troy, NY.  Earl & Wilson was probably the most successful of 25 companies in Troy producing shirt collars and this afforded the Earl family to live in luxury.  It would allow them to die in luxury as well.
Not much is known about young Earl except that he was an only child and plagued with health issues.  On his travels, Gardner Earl became familiar with the practice of cremation which was already popular in Europe and upon his return, he left a bequest that he be cremated.  Earl died at age 38, on March 3, 1887 and in order to honor his bequest, his parents took his body by train to Buffalo to be cremated as that was the closest crematorium.  It was then that the Earls decided to build the Earl Chapel and Crematorium, sparing no expense.

The Earls hired architect team Fuller & Wheeler to design the chapel.  The chapel took two years to complete.  It was built by Nichols and McGill in 1889, and in 1890 the four year old son of the then governor of New York was cremated here.  The building's exterior is a stunning example of Romanesque architecture, constructed of rough-hewn, pink-tinted, grey stone.  There is a 90' tower, and an arched loggia.  The tower originally housed a space where families could wait, sometimes overnight, while their loved one was cremated. That space has been inaccessible in recent years as the iron and stone staircase is no longer stable.
One of the most stunning features are the 8 Tiffany stained glass windows.  Four flank the sides of the chapel - someone recently suggesting perhaps depicting the four seasons with echinacea, lilies, grapes and pomegranates.  At the end of the chapel a magnificent rose window towers high stones hand wrought using jewel glass so it would appear as if the sun were shining even on a cloud day.

The wainscoting is Champlain white and red marble.  The chapel ceiling boasts beams of quartered oak.  Stone carvings in the chapel were done by the same tradesmen that were working at the state capitol at the time, workers alternating between work sites.  The floors are marble mosaic.  Ornate radiator covers were made by the P. Guerin Company of New York.

The chapel was built to be secular with no religious affiliation, but The Tiffany stained glass on the altar depict Jesus and two angels.  One more smaller but no less beautiful Tiffany window is this one in a pass-through.  It reads, "Fiat Lux" (Let there be light)

At the rear of the chapel (in the photo above) are the chambers that house the cremains of William, Hannah and Gardner Earl.

Beyond and to the left of the altar lies the 'Reception Room'. Originally a simpler space which functioned to 'receive' the deceased, the reception room was actually the retort room.  A retort is the chamber where the body is placed for cremation. This room housed two 'retorts' which sit behind the brass and green onyx doors.

In 1892 when James Inglis came on as superintendent of the chapel the room was transformed to it's present state.  Two new retorts using kerosene were added when it was determined that wood-fired cremation was not the most efficient, taking 10-12 hours.  Kerosene cut the time in half.  Later in the 1970's the process switched to gas (once again reducing cremation time) and the cremations now take place in a separate building behind the chapel for safety reasons.   The Receiving Room features green onyx columns, bronze and green onyx doors, pink African marble, green Japanese marble and Sienna marble from Italy.  Two stained glass windows illuminate this space, not Tiffany however.  One depicts St. Paul in Athens and the other, Queen of Sheba before Solomon. 

Mahogany Catafalque

Today the chapel is used for more than cremation services. It is used for a variety of events such as weddings, plays, and quieter music concerts.  In 1990 the Friends of Oakwood was formed and thanks to their work events like today's tour help raise funds to maintain and restore this magnificent site which is named on the National Historic Register.  One interesting note from my research....the Earls were the sole financiers for the chapel.  This meant funding was not depending on finding donors who may not have been familiar or supportive of cremation.  It also meant the Earls had complete control over the design.  If you think this space is gorgeous in photos, trust me it is nothing short of breathtaking when you're standing inside it yourself. I know I use the word 'breathtaking' often, and often it describes a country landscape, but in this case breathtaking is taken up a notch.
I'd like to thank Heidi, our tour guide, who gave us a fact-filled, relaxed tour.  It's easy to see why the Friends of Oakwood are so passionate about preserving this special place.  There's only one more opportunity to see the chapel this season.  That is Saturday, December 14th for their annual Christmas concert at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.  Reservations are required by calling 518-328-0900.  To read more about Oakwood Cemetery and the Earl Chapel, I've included the following links including my earlier blog post featuring the cemetery:

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