"The timing was perfect": Ypsi's Starkweather Chapel undergoes major renovation

Starkweather Memorial Chapel, inside Ypsilanti's historic Highland Cemetery, has received a long-overdue renovation and there are plans to open it to the public as a small rental venue sometime this autumn.


Barry LaRue, Ypsilanti resident and secretary of the Highland Cemetery Association, has been the driving force behind the project, with help from a number of other artisans from Michigan and beyond. The project was made possible with income from DTE, which leased a small portion of the cemetery's land for a solar array in 2016, as well as funds raised through a GoFundMe campaign.


"It has architectural significance and it's beautiful," LaRue says of the chapel, which was built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. "Anything beautiful should be preserved, and it's part of Ypsilanti history."

Barry LaRue at Starkweather Memorial Chapel.

LaRue has a lifelong interest in history and preservation, and he has personal ties to Highland Cemetery and the chapel. Both his parents are buried in Highland Cemetery, and the memorial service for his mother was one of the last events held in the chapel before it fell into disuse, suffering the ravages of time and weather.


The chapel was built by Ypsilanti resident Mary Ann Starkweather in memory of her deceased husband. She inherited a large sum in 1884 and funded a variety of other civic projects, including Starkweather Hall on the campus of Eastern Michigan University, and gave her home to the Ladies Library Association.

Starkweather Memorial Chapel.

The chapel was designed by the famous architectural team Mason and Rice, who also designed the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and a number of iconic buildings in Detroit. Most of the construction took place in 1888, and the building was dedicated in early 1889.


It was used continuously through the 1970s but was in poor shape by the 1980s. LaRue says it appeared that the chapel underwent some renovation work in the 1920s after a leak in the roof destroyed some of the plaster and wainscotting in the chapel's apse.


Another renovation in the 1960s placed a wall to hide part of the deteriorating tower and apse area, since nobody wanted to spend the money to repair it.


Over the decades, a number of area residents lobbied for the chapel to be repaired, including local architect Denis Schmiedeke, now deceased.


LaRue says Schmiedeke's request to move furniture out of the chapel and into the caretaker's cottage probably saved it, and the remodeled Starkweather Chapel will have all four original pews and two chairs. LaRue had custom pillows made to match the originals.

Starkweather Memorial Chapel.

The project started with a roof replacement in summer 2019 to stop the water problems and prevent any additional weather damage. LaRue was unable to find the exact same type of roof tiles but found a company in Ohio that could make a very close match. Heating and cooling were added to the building to protect the woodwork and floors and make the building usable year round, and the floor was refinished in early August, bringing a surprise with it.


"It's oak and walnut, but it was so dirty and grimy that it all just looked brown and dirty," LaRue says. "But when we sanded it, we discovered it has dark walnut all around the perimeter, and the interior part of the rectangle is white oak. It's amazing, but you wouldn't have known it."


LaRue recruited other builders and building conservationists to help with the project. Rex Richie, vice president of the Highland Cemetery Association, is also a local builder, and helped with carpentry and advice. Local woodworker Doug Dillon helped with the restoration as well. Robert Christensen helped get Highland Cemetery placed on the National Register of Historic Places in February, which will make it easier for the cemetery association to apply for state grants to help fund work on the cemetery and chapel.


Ron Koenig, architectural conservator and owner of Building Arts and Conservation in Saline, restored all the chapel's doors, hinges, and locks.


"We put up plywood and he took the doors back to his Saline studio and restored those doors really to their original appearance. They took them apart surgically, and they look gorgeous," LaRue says.


"I like projects that are a challenge or out of the ordinary, and Starkweather is that," Koenig says.


Some of the work was complicated by lack of photos of the inside of the chapel, though the exterior is well-documented. Koenig was able to do a chemical analysis of plaster fragments in order to pinpoint the original hues used. The rose-colored paint and blue ceiling match the original colors, LaRue says.

Starkweather Memorial Chapel.

"The amount of work Barry has done himself inside is amazing," Koenig says, noting that the restoration required a plasterer and stone masons in addition to the other work done on the interior.


"If he hadn't stepped in, within a few years, we'd be reaching the turning point where the chapel wasn't going to be salvageable. It was just on the cusp, and the timing was perfect," Koenig says.


LaRue hopes to have most of phase one of the project completed by the end of the summer and hopes that the building, which can seat about 40-45 people, will be used for a variety of purposes, from memorial services to musical events.


Phase two will involve repairing sandstone on the exterior and replacement and repair of windows, including conservation of the building's stained glass windows.


"Once those are done, I'll say the project is done, and it's all maintenance after that," LaRue says.


Updates on the progress of the restoration and a link to donate to the project are available here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos by Doug Coombe.
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