With a Palette of Wood and Glass, a Midcentury Modern Office Building Transforms into a Full-service Funeral Home and Chapel

When the Archdiocese of Portland (Oregon) decided to transform a modest 2,000-square-foot Midcentury Modern administration building for its Gethsemani Catholic Cemetery into a complete funeral home and crematorium, the intent was not simply to expand the footprint and introduce new programmatic elements. A 3,000-square-foot addition had to achieve a careful balance: providing the solemnity and contemplative spaces that would gracefully shepherd families through their most difficult hour, yet also attending to the functional needs of its office and crematorium staff.

At the top of the chapel, a clerestory window to the north (repurposed from the existing office) and a long slot window to the south bring a stream of sunlight and views of the sky into the space.

At the top of the chapel, a clerestory window to the north (repurposed from the existing office) and a long slot window to the south bring a stream of sunlight and views of the sky into the space.

“It really was just an office building for the cemetery side with records storage and restrooms for families visiting the cemetery,” explains Tim Corbett, director of cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Portland. “Many funeral homes say, ‘We refrigerate at this facility; we embalm at this facility; we cremate at this facility.’ We wanted to put all of those items into our building.” But size was a concern: how to introduce a chapel and all the attendant funeral-home capabilities on a limited amount of available land and retain portions of the office that had been renovated as recently as 2011.

The first decision was to keep the chapel small at just 25 seats, which thankfully fit with the Archdiocese’s bigger picture. “On occasion a small gathering will turn out to be an extremely large gathering, which can put a strain on our facilities. We’ve actually had groups of 75 in that space. But our philosophy was we didn’t want to take the place of your church,” Corbett says. “We purposely didn’t have a large chapel and area to seat people because we want you to be at your parish.” The Gethsemani Funeral Home’s chapel is intended primarily for viewings, or rosaries, the first of a three-stage Catholic liturgical tradition before mass and then committal to the cemetery.

Despite its modest size, the 25-seat chapel feels spacious, evocative of place and engendering of contemplation. Although the lobby maintained the original building’s low ceilings, which are only 8-feet high, it gives way to a 22-foot-high chapel clad in naturally stained tongue-in-groove Douglas fir, Oregon’s signature evergreen hardwood. The client had initially suggested wainscoting along the bottom half of the chapel interior to save money. “But at the end of the day the architects made the right call,” Corbett says. “Long after cost is forgotten, the quality will be there.”

The wood-festooned wall and ceiling panels also mask layers of sound-absorbing landscape fabric, giving this solemn yet subtly beautiful space an intimate ambiance despite the high ceilings. “There’s no echo. Someone could be speaking here and you don’t have to talk too loudly,” says Architect Christopher LoNigro of DiLoreto Architecture, Portland. “I love that as people walk into the chapel, their voices lower just a little.”

Although the lobby maintained the original building’s low ceilings, which are only 8-feet high, it gives way to a 22-foot-high chapel clad in naturally stained tongue-in-groove Douglas fir.

Although the lobby maintained the original building’s low ceilings, which are only 8-feet high, it gives way to a 22-foot-high chapel clad in naturally stained tongue-in-groove Douglas fir.

At the top of the chapel, a clerestory window to the north (repurposed from the existing office) and a long slot window to the south bring a stream of sunlight and views of the sky into the space. On a recent spring visit, the chapel became a continuing drama of light and shadow as clouds passed across the blue sky. Here and in the lobby, where glass walls on the entry fac?ade were chosen over solid surfaces and stained glass after some deliberation, Gethsemani Funeral Home is more open and full of light than most such funeral homes, which are traditionally among the most windowless spaces. “We wanted to maintain the feel of the original Midcentury building, which had a wonderful indoor-outdoor feel because of the natural light,” says Architect Tracy Orvis of DiLoreto Architecture.

But the design direction took time. Initially, the architects considered using less glass or using stained glass out of a concern for privacy. “I was wrongly interested in the isolation of people who might be mourning,” LoNigro says. Coming through the door, an artfully colorful mosaic image of Jesus Christ “would be a little surprise as you entered.”

Yet particularly because the ceilings of the original midcentury-era lobby are relatively low, using transparent glass made the space feel less confining and better connected to the rolling green grass-covered landscape of the cemetery it looks out on. “Typically, a funeral home is dark and formal. Here it’s much more of an open-air, bright feeling,” Corbett says.

PHOTOS: Pete Eckert

About the Author

Brian Libby
Brian Libby is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance design journalist, critic and architectural photographer.

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