Cemetery of the Week #56: Chapel of the Chimes

Interior view of the Chapel of the Chimes

Chapel of the Chimes
Also known as California Memorial Crematorium and Columbarium
4499 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, California 94611
Telephone: 510-654-0123
Founded: 1909
Size: One and a half city blocks
Number of burials/inurnments: more than 200,000
Open: Daily, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

THIS WEEKEND: Chapel of the Chimes offers a Historical Tour on Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 10 a.m. Please RSVP to lcharles@lifemarkgroup.com.

The earliest section of the Chapel of the Chimes

The land where Oakland’s lovely Chapel of the Chimes now stands was originally the site of a trolley car station delivering people to the gates of Mountain View Cemetery (Cemetery of the Week #35). The California Crematorium Association purchased the old station in 1902 and turned it into a chapel for funeral services. Using the talents of architects Cunningham and Politeo, the Association built the first crematory on the east side of San Francisco Bay in 1909 and then added a columbarium.

The name Chapel of the Chimes is misleading. While there are several lovely chapels inside the building, its name refers to it as a place of peace and tranquility, a building of light and beauty rather than of darkness and death. The “chimes” are a carillon, installed in the building’s tower, which were repaired in 2008 after many years of disuse.

The original chapel of the columbarium still has trains schedules on the wall. The original niches are sealed by metal plaques that convey very little information, often only a last name. The second section of the columbarium began to use glass, which was brought about the Horn or shipped cross-country on trains, to protect the urns inside those niches. By the time the third section opened, the niches were left open to display the urns inside.

At Chapel of the Chimes, the niches are property sold in perpetuity to one member of a family, who can will space to only one subsequent family member. The niches are not family-owned. The standard-sized niche holds the remains of two people.

View of Morgan’s design work

In the 1920s, prominent Bay Area architect Julia Morgan (the first woman to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris) was hired to design the magnificent Moorish Gothic addition, which includes gardens, alcoves, cloisters, fountains, and chapels. Morgan included stained glass, mosaics, European statuary, tile floors, and California faience to decorate the walls. One of her additions is a balustrade now in the cloister. She had intended the piece for Hearst Castle, but William Randolph Hearst rejected it, so it ended up here.

As you enter the Chapel of the Chimes through its ornate Gothic walkway, you pass a deMedici marble table, purchased by Morgan. Beyond that stands the Bible Cloister, which antique bibles are displayed beneath calligraphed verses. The highlight of the collection is a page from an original Gutenberg Bible.

Beyond the cloister, a breathtaking series of short stairways lead upward to fountain terraces. The eight-pointed star that recurs throughout the design is the mourning star. These hillside gardens are patterened after the Alhambra in Spain. In Moorish décor, blue tile represents water and signifies life.

Ruth Cravath’s Angel Gabriel in Repose

In the past, the gardens had their own flock of caged birds and fish swam in the ponds. Now light pours in through skylights that crank open to admit fresh air. Birds of paradise and ferns grow in the gardens. The building is unheated in the winter, so purely tropical plants wouldn’t survive. Even so, the prehistoric cycad trees are second generation. The originals broke through the glass roof and had to be replaced. In another room, the banana palms are seven years old and grow actual bananas.

In 1959, Aaron Green (a student of Frank Lloyd Wright) added the mausoleum behind the columbarium, allowing for full body interment. Chapel of the Chimes was the first space in the world to be both columbarium and mausoleum.

John Lee Hooker’s grave

The most famous resident of the Chapel of the Chimes is bluesman John Lee Hooker, King of the Boogie. To find him, you take the stairs upward from the Bible Cloister, winding through the Garden of Memory, the Garden of Promise, the Garden of Prayer, the Garden of Supplication, up to the Garden of Revelation, turn left, and take the elevator up to the third floor. Up there, turn left again and pass through the Sanctuary of Dawn and the Court of Commitment into the Court of Affirmation. Once you step beyond the confines of the map, you can’t miss John Lee Hooker’s grave on the outer wall of the newest addition to the Chapel of the Chimes.

The Chapel was granted landmark status by the City of Oakland on March 30, 1999.

Every summer solstice, the Chapel hosts a huge performance of eclectic, avant garde music. Performances rang from hand-cranked hurdy-gurdies, a cappella choirs, didgeridoo, noise music, sound experiments, and everything in between. The music ranges from challenging to meditative. Musicians perform in shifts, tucked into every nook and garden of the columbarium. It’s a wonder to behold. This year’s Garden of Memories concert is scheduled for June 21, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets are required, but aren’t on sale yet.

Useful links:

The Chapel of the Chimes website

The Chapel’s events newsletter and calendar, as a .pdf download

Last year’s Soltice Concert program

Pictures of Julia Morgan’s contributions to the Chapel of the Chimes

Related burial grounds on Cemetery Travel:

Week #30: the The Neptune Society Columbarium in San Francisco

Week #35: Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California

5 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #56: Chapel of the Chimes

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