The Weekend Tourist :: Go there for the architecture

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December 6, 2010
By: Linda Koutsky
Linda Koutsky
Lakewood Cemetery  //  3600 Hennepin Ave. S.  //  Open daily, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. (inquire at administration building if not open)

One of the country’s most exquisite mosaics is right here in Minneapolis within daily sight of many residents. But how many of you dare to venture in? It’s in a cemetery! You don’t go there unless you have to, right? Well, go ahead. They love visitors. And you never know, with the variety of ancient religious symbols and all that imagery steeped in spirituality and encouragement, you might even walk away from there inspired.

Lakewood Cemetery was founded in 1871. Colonel William S. King convinced community leaders to organize a nondenominational cemetery. He said it should be located so far out of town that “the encroachment of the city would never seriously interfere.” The original location fell through, so King offered up his property.

Early on, the cemetery’s few buildings included an stone entrance gate, homes for employees, and two chapels. In March of 1908 Harry Wild Jones was chosen to design a new chapel. Five months later construction began.

Harry Wild Jones (1859–1935), the son of a Baptist minister, graduated from MIT and began his architectural career working for Boston’s famous architect H.H. Richardson. His massive stone buildings with round arches became known as Richardsonian Romanesque. In 1883 Jones moved to Minneapolis with his wife, Bertha. He soon opened his own practice designing churches, Butler Square, and Shingle Style homes with broad eaves and pointed turrets for East Coast transplants as the city began to grow and blossom. His own home, Elmwood, near 51st and Nicollet, was built in 1886. You can stay there today because Elmwood is a bed and breakfast.  

Jones designed Lakewood’s chapel after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It is cruciform in plan with a 65-foot-tall dome and four square towers. The exterior is red granite from St. Cloud capped with a Spanish tile roof. The building is like a geode — rough and sturdy on the outside, but a sparkling gem inside. While Jones designed the exterior and spaces within, the interior surface decoration was designed by Charles Lamb of New York along with six Venetian artists who had just finished a project at the Vatican. The glistening interior features ten million pieces of marble, stone, colored glass, and glass fused with silver and gold. The Byzantine patterns and Art Nouveau figures cover every single square inch of the place. Walking into the chapel for the first time is like being on an architectural tour in Europe. We just don’t have places this ornate here.

The interior’s symbolism and fine craftsmanship go on and on. Twelve angels support the dome. Four hold red roses and mark the compass points. Twenty-four stained glass windows also function as a sun dial. A Song of Solomon quote circles the 200-seat chapel: until the day break and the shadows flee away. Figures representing Love, Hope, Faith, and Memory reside between archways. Olive trees depicting the cycle of life cover the main alcove. All of this in half-inch-square pieces of glass! And this doesn’t even begin to explain all the symbolism here. If you want to know more, pick up a brochure in the entryway.

Since the chapel opened in 1910, numerous people have passed in and out of its bronze doors. And many came to stay. On the grounds you can visit Paul Wellstone; Hubert Humphrey; T.B. Walker, Les Kouba, Tiny Tim, former Elks members, seven governors, and Harry Wild Jones himself. Or you can come here and reflect on your own friends and family and take a moment to appreciate our time here on earth.

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Pie break

Just on the other side of Kings Highway is Gigi’s Cafe, a quaint place to enjoy pumpkin muffins and locally grown treats (822 W. 36th St.)