FOREST HILLS—A capstone block from the over 150-year-old Gothic-style Forsyth Chapel at Forest Hills Cemetery was found by staff lying on the ground last January.
Years of high winds and rain pulled on electrical wires tied to a nearby tree and anchored in the stone, eventually ripping it from the chapel foundation.
The dislodged stone alerted members of the Forest Hills Trust to weaknesses in the chapel’s foundation and spurred an architectural overview of the entire cemetery.
“This wouldn’t normally happen, but it showed something was wrong between the mortar joints,” she said. “We were seeing [signs] of water damage inside the chapel.
“Inside the building, water was leaking in around several sets of windows. The ornamental plaster was getting destroyed,” Miller said.
“It could get worse if not taken care of. If really not taken care of, it will start to undermine the structural integrity of the building,” she said.
Renovations to the chapel and cemetery entrance gates this past summer and fall were the result of that study.
“It’s almost like you wouldn’t notice because it’s restored to look the way it should,” said Cecily Miller, director of the Forest Hills Educational Trust.
According to Mitch Zachevsky, director of operations at Forest Hills, the top-most ornament on the spires at the entrance gate, known as the filial, a floral structure, needed to be re-fabricated. The spires are like a minute model of an obelisk. The spires are over 30 feet tall and made of stone.
Zachevsky said the renovations were part of a larger plan at the cemetery. He said the board of trustees and then-President Tom Whitney realized they needed a master plan to direct the cemetery’s resources and mission over a year-and-a-half ago. Two firms were employed for the work.
Elizabeth Vizza Consulting, a landscape design and master-planning firm from Brookline, wrote a 23-part master plan covering the entire cemetery from its architecture to landscape and monuments. Lynn Spencer, a historical preservationist specialist from Menders, Torrey and Spencer, also looked over the cemetery’s architectural structures to check for weaknesses and overall status.
“We had a hunch renovation work was needed [to the chapel and gate],” said Zachevsky. “The master plan was more of a guide or indicator.”
According to Zachevsky and Miller, those repairs were needed as soon as
Preservation specialists from Consigli Construction worked to repair the loose capstone on the chapel and the spires on top of the cemetery entrance gates.
Miller said a grant for $67,000 from a foundation that wished to remain anonymous funded the work. The rest of the project, which cost over $200,000, was funded through the cemetery’s treasury.
“It has been challenging for the cemetery to pay for repairs,” she said.
The cemetery raises money like a university or historical site. The Forest Hills Educational Trust runs community programs such as concerts and poetry readings at the chapel. It also sponsors walks through the historic cemetery and open space. Sound structures are one key to success.
Preserving the historic qualities and integrity of the chapel is a critical but expensive task.
“We made sure to fix [the chapel and gate] in a way that was up to the highest standard of repair work,” said Miller. “That adds a level of cost. You could end up creating worse problems down the road using a contractor,” she said. “You can’t take short-cuts.”
Miller said the workers were intelligent and skilled craftsmen. She said they did things like take the spires on the gate apart piece-by-piece.
“Some of the stones from the chapel could not be replaced,” said Miller. “So the workers did things like find puddingstone in outcroppings around the church to match.”
Zachevsky said parts of the gate were sent to Nova Scotia to be done. “They had the sandstone we needed,” he said.
For now, renovations at the cemetery have halted due to the winter season and financial constraints. Miller said in the next five to 10 years, money has to be raised for more projects.
“It’s time for a major overhaul,” she said.
Miller and Zachevsky said preserving the aesthetic value of the cemetery is essential.
“Everything the [Forest Hills] Trust does, it does to increase the awareness and public use of the cemetery as well as the green space,” said Miller. “That work is done keeping in mind this is also a sacred place for people who have family buried here.”
The chapel serves as a small venue for the community and artists. Four years ago the Forest Hills Trust received a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for music and performances.
“The work had to be done,” said Miller. “It was more about protecting an American architectural treasure.”
The gates to the cemetery were built in the Gothic style of architecture by Brookline architect Charles Panther in 1865. Before the Gothic-style gates, Egyptian-style gates welcomed visitors. After the gates were built, Forsyth Chapel was modeled in the same design.
Forsyth Chapel was built circa 1883 by Henry Van Brunt, who also designed Memorial Hall at Harvard University. The money was donated by a future member of the board of trustees at the cemetery, James Bennet Forsyth. Forsyth named the chapel after his sister, Margaret. He also donated money for the Forsyth Dental Clinic. Forsyth is buried at the cemetery.
The Forest Hills Educational Trust holds art exhibits, monthly concerts and poetry readings. It also home to a sculpture path with a Victorian collection and work from contemporary artists. The next two performances are the Borremeo String Quarter Feb. 18 and the Silver Leaf Gospel singers March 25. [See JP Happenings.]
The cemetery also hosts a lantern festival each year that attracts thousands. According to the cemetery’s web site, it is a non-denominational ceremony inspired by Buddhist tradition. At dusk, after a music and dance program, people light their lanterns and send them into the air to spread their message to the spirits. For more information visit www.foresthillstrust.org or www.foresthillscemetery.com.