BY BRIAN LIBBY
For a recent article in Retrofit magazine, I had the chance to visit the Gethsemani Catholic Cemetery and Funeral Home, with a focus on the transformation of the Archdiocese of Portland's midcentury-modern administration building there into a full-service funeral home with a small chapel and a crematorium.
Maybe the idea of visiting a funeral home sounds a bit morbid. On the morning I visited, for example, in the chapel a viewing ceremony was being prepared for a teenage boy who, no matter the circumstances, ought to have lived a much longer life. It was also a bit surreal entering the crematorium and seeing the oven where human remains become ashes collected in an urn. Yet good design can make the experience of commemorating a loved one's passing a little bit better or at least a little bit easier of an experience, and that's what I saw from the work of DiLoreto Architecture here. From the bountiful natural light to the extensive use of natural materials like wood, this relatively modest 3,000 square foot expansion of the original 2,000-square foot original building was carried out smartly and sensitively.
Besides simply adding square footage, the newly expanded building now 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.
“It really was just an office building for the cemetery side with records storage and restrooms for families visiting the cemetery,” explained Tim Corbett, director of cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Portland, in the Retrofit article. “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 while also retaining the office.
When I think back to visiting this project, inevitably it's the chapel that comes to mind.
It's a small space, at just 25 seats. “We purposely didn’t have a large chapel and area to seat people because we want you to be at your parish,” Corbett explained. 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.
Even so, the little chapel feels spacious. Although the lobby maintained the original building’s low ceilings, which are only eight feet high, the lobby gives way to a 22-foot-high chapel clad in naturally stained tongue-in-groove Douglas fir. 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. You don’t have to talk too loudly,” said Architect Christopher LoNigro of DiLoreto Architecture. “I love that as people walk into the chapel, their voices lower just a little.”
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. "We wanted to maintain the feel of the original midcentury building, which had a wonderful indoor-outdoor feel because of the natural light,” architect Tracy Orvis of DiLoreto told me.
The natural light and transparency only increase in the rest of the space. At the entrance to the building, the architects made use of floor-to-ceiling glass, but only after deliberation. “I was wrongly interested in the isolation of people who might be mourning,” LoNigro said. Coming through the door, an artfully colorful mosaic image of Jesus Christ “would be a little surprise as you entered.” The original office is tucked in back, separated from the lobby with a maple-paneled wall that gives way to clerestory windows above to bring light from the lobby to employees’ workstations.
Because the original building was placed closed to the road, the front facade needed to provide the main public entrance and the service entrance. To differentiate between the two and make the public entrance clearly visible while camouflaging the service entrance, a canopy extends over the glass entry on the south side of the building while the service entrance on the north side of the building was clad in the same exterior tongue-in-groove cedar as this portion of the facade. Although the original office structure and the first-floor base of the building are clad in stone, to maintain and emphasize the horizontality of the original Midcentury building, a thin band of this cedar cladding runs along the entire front facade above the stone. “We needed the chapel and the chimney to feel like all the same space,” LoNigro explained.
Being in the crematorium space, as you might imagine, felt a bit strange. The oven itself is really just a big piece of industrial equipment, and it's located in what is basically a garage. If you back away from it too absentmindedly, you might back right into the hearse.
When I visited the Gethsemani Funeral Home expansion, there was an additional architectural treat waiting a few hundred steps to the south: an existing stand-alone chapel building completed in 1961 and designed by Jacobberger, Franks and Norman.
The name Jacobberger is a fairly significant one in Portland architectural history. Joseph Jacobberger was one of the city's most acclaimed architects of the century's first three decades, his completed buildings including St. Mary's Cathedral (1925), the B.P. John building at Marylhurst University (1929), the Calumet Hotel (1907) and a master plan for the University of Portland (then known as Columbia University). Most of all, though, Jacobberger was known for his houses, designing over 260 in his career (about 130 of which remain today).
This chapel was not designed by Joseph Jacobberger, because he died in 1930 and this building was completed 31 years later. His son Francis Jacobberger spent decades designing buildings here as well, including many houses (he could be considered part of the Northwest Modern regional style that emerged here in the midcentury) as well as public projects such as the Oregon State School for the Blind in Salem. Sadly, both Joseph and Francis Jacobberger died in their early 60s: Joseph at 62 and Francis at 63.
The chapel feels like a religious space created in the early 1960s, with a large amount of light coming through huge, wildly colorful expanses of stained glass. Rather than evoking images of Jesus or Mary, the chapel's stained glass is comprised of simple geometric shapes. To my eyes it is both dated and delightful.
I'm not a churchgoer, and in today's world, I'm more suspicious of tribalism in all its forms: national, religious, even sports teams. Yet my favorite type of architecture has always been public gathering spaces, where people from all walks of life come together: concert halls and arenas, stadiums, amphitheaters, small clubs, and the ecclesiastical architecture of synagogues, churches, temples and mosques.
Church services are about congregations, but whether it's at a church or a funeral home, I think of the funerals I've attended in recent years and how they often bring together people of disparate places and cultures. I'll never forget attending my grandmother's funeral in November 2016 just a few days after the presidential election: a week of double traumas. Because the funeral was in a small town and most of the extended family was religious, I was probably outnumbered by Trump voters ten to one. But mercifully that didn't really come up. That had more to do with a shared love of my grandmother than it did the architecture, but the church was still where it happened: a time-out from the chaos and horrors of the outside world, a refuge, even at a moment of shared personal grief—or maybe especially then.
The best thing I can say about DiLoreto's Gethsemani expansion is that I can imagine being in that little 25-person chapel and uplifted: by the beauty of the soaring, double-height space and the enveloping feel of the Douglas fir wall panels, the clerestory windows revealing blue sky and clouds where most would be windowless. As much as I enjoyed visiting the larger 1961 chapel and its colorful stained glass, it's the newer, smaller spaces that really feels special. I just wish it were in Portland and not in the suburb of Happy Valley, just beyond the gargantuan eyesore and taste-vacuum that is Clackamas Town Center. Thankfully DiLoreto Architects has made a habit of designing compelling public spaces, be it cultural centers like Nordia House or other religious buildings, in a variety of locations. Hey guys, how about a meditation chapel in close-in Southeast Portland?