December 28, 2016

Photo Essay: The Locked Chapels of Rose Hills

At 1,400 acres, Rose Hills in Whittier, CA is not only the largest cemetery in North America, but also the largest memorial park in the world.

But for those of us who merely drive past it, with no one to mourn within its perimeter, it's simply the cemetery with the red neon sign.

Founded in 1914, Rose Hills didn't go all "Hollywood" with the 20-foot letters that spell out its name until the 1940s. The sign was briefly switched off during the 1970s energy crisis—but it only stayed dark until the FAA requested it be turned back on as a beacon for the pilots who'd often used it for reference while in flight.

But this particular sign hasn't been in this particular place in Rose Hills the whole time since the '40s: The original sign got moved around a few times, and the original wooden letters eventually warped and broke the neon. Metal letters and new glass tubes replaced the old ones back in 1990.

The neon sign is just what people see from the outside of this "memorial park." On the inside, its landscape is dotted by mausolea and chapels of many different architectural styles—and yet still, it reportedly has "excellent" Feng Shui.

The most striking standout—architecturally, anyway—at Rose Hills is the Memorial Chapel, with its three spires seemingly stabbing the sky at 90 feet high in the air.

Built in 1964, this is a Mid-Century Modern masterpiece by A.C. Martin and Associates, also known for their work on LA's City Hall, the  LADWP headquarters, the Wilshire May Company building, and the in-progress Wilshire Grand (though Martin himself passed away in 1960).

The entire structure is still blindingly white, the spires reflecting off the pools from which they arise.

On a clear day, you can see Downtown LA from here (or maybe even forever).

This chapel is technically only one story high, but it feels much larger, thanks to the roof that curves up into one of the spires.

Everything about the Memorial Chapel soars—but if you only look up, you'll miss what's underneath that curved roof...

...which is a panel of stained glass in the dalle-de-verre style... that of French craftsman Roger Darricarrere (though I've yet to verify whether this particular piece is actually his or not).

Unlike most churches that you can just walk into pretty much at any time you want, this chapel is far more elusive. On my visit, I asked a worker who was polishing the hardware on the door, "It's not open?" and he shook his head no.

When I asked when it would be open, he shrugged and said, "I don't know, maybe tomorrow?"

By the year 1959, Rose Hills had expanded from 31 acres to 2600 acres in just 30 years—and that was largely thanks to the efforts of John Gregg, son of Rose Hills' founder Augustus Gregg.

John Gregg was also the one to commission the neon sign back in the 1940s.

This chapel was erected as a tribute to him.

Up the hill from the Gardens of Affection, Benediction, Contentment, Remembrance, and Solace, another chapel was built of wood, stone, and glass in 1997: "SkyRose."

Sounding something like a James Bond lair, it rises up 90 feet and three stories high, with the top floor serving as a custom-built loft for an organ by Quimby Pipe Organs in Missouri.

Although the organ itself is considered new (also circa 1997), several historical reed ranks built by the Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner Organ Companies of Boston, Massachusetts can be found in the Solo division played from the fourth manual.

The organ has a total of four manuals, 65 ranks, and 3,937 pipes. But the trick is getting to the chapel on a day when it's unlocked—and on a day when there's someone there who can play the instrument.

It's such a shame to be locked out of yet another chapel, this one having come out of a partnership between two Arkansas architects, Fay Jones and Maurice Jennings.

Prior to Jones being awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 1990 and becoming a Fellow of the AIA in 1979, he was a Taliesin-trained apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose influence on his work is clear.

Jones has been quoted as saying that the SkyRose Chapel would “nourish and express that all-important intangible of the human condition at its spiritual best.” Intangible, yes—and impenetrable.

Although it's his largest, the SkyRose Chapel isn't Jones' most famous work—that honor being held by the Thorncrown Chapel in the Arkansas Ozark Mountains. In fact, Jones is credited for having created the "Ozark" style of architecture, though it certainly seems to fit here in Southern California (especially amidst other likeminded houses of worship like the Wayfarer's Chapel).

Back down the hill, the diamond-shaped Hillside Chapel—completed in 1956—makes for a fitting neighbor to the SkyRose Chapel, with its angled roof, stone-clad walls, and 22-foot high windows. It's one of two chapels designed by A.C. Martin that year, but it's the only one to have survived. (The Sky Church was demolished after sustaining heavy damage in the wake of the 1987 Whittier earthquake, and the Memorial Chapel came eight years later.)

The interior is said to have perfect acoustics—but that can only be proven by actually going inside, which is just as much of a challenge here as it is at the Memorial and SkyRose chapels. All you're left to do is peer in through the rose-tinted windows, which were designed to give the appearance of an eternal sunrise (as seen, of course, from inside).

Each of these chapels, in their own unique way, embrace the natural world that surrounds them—and that includes, of course, the roses of Rose Hills. So, by being locked out of these many chapels, you're forced to embrace the outer landscape, the experience of which these architects tried so hard to bring into their structures.

That is, being outside of the chapels shouldn't, by nature, be that different than being inside of them.

But something tells me it is.

Related Posts:
A Wayfarer's Visit to a Chapel
Photo Essay: The Storybook Wedding Chapel of Forest Lawn Cemetery
Photo Essay: Overlooking Old Hollywoodland from the Letters That Once Spelled It
Photo Essay: The Decorations, Wishes, and Faces of Chinese New Year

1 comment:

  1. Hillside Chapel does indeed have incredible acoustics. Have one member of your party stand at the front of the room. Have another member stand near the entry door and whisper. You'll be fascinated.