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'It's just crazy': Auburn's historic Willard Chapel hit by COVID-19 on all sides
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ARTS & CULTURE

'It's just crazy': Auburn's historic Willard Chapel hit by COVID-19 on all sides

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Willard Memorial Chapel 10

Willard Memorial Chapel in Auburn in October.

I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

If there's an economic ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, Willard Memorial Chapel has felt it.

The historic Auburn site — the only complete and unaltered Louis Comfort Tiffany chapel in existence — has seen almost every source of its financial support disappear since the pandemic began.

Bus tours, which would bring groups of out-of-state tourists to the chapel 40 to 50 times a year, have stopped.

So have weddings, which the chapel hosted 15 to 20 times a year.

And the Sunday afternoon concerts that the chapel presented regularly in the spring and fall have been put on pause as well.

So the chapel's visitor base is "pretty much gone," said Kathy Walker, executive director of the nonprofit Community Preservation Committee that stewards the chapel.

"We have no plans to reopen," she told The Citizen on Tuesday. "We're sort of feeling the waters."

What's more, the chapel has canceled its biggest fundraiser of the year, Amateur Chef's Night.

Hosted by Sacred Heart Church in Owasco, the October event brought together restaurants and chefs from throughout the area to serve food and beverages for the benefit of the chapel. But the committee couldn't bring itself to ask restaurants that have also gone months without business to donate hundreds of dollars worth of food and labor to the event, Walker said.

"We honestly didn't feel it was right," she said. "And we're not sure how many people we could sell tickets to, and how many people could be in Sacred Heart."

The chapel has also been losing revenue from the office space it rents there. Longtime tenant the Friends of Hospice Thrift Shop has vacated its two spaces, and tenant Gaston-Moore Photography is staying rent-free as its own business tries to survive. That leaves the SCAT Van as the chapel's only source of rent, Walker said.

Meanwhile, the chapel's volunteers, most older and therefore more vulnerable to the coronavirus, have been hesitant about returning there, Walker continued. But she's nonetheless thankful for them, the committee's board of directors and others who have helped guide the nonprofit through the pandemic by advising on financial planning, safety, maintenance and other matters.

"It's just crazy," she said of the situation. "It's unbelievable how the dominoes fell, with one financial door after another closing."

Walker isn't optimistic that situation will change anytime soon, either.

She thinks bus tours will take the longest to come back, as they're not socially distant by nature and their passengers also skew older.

With weddings, Walker is taking more of a wait-and-see approach. The chapel is permitted by the state's reopening plan to host ceremonies at 50% of its 200-person capacity. And people scouting venues make up most of the few local visitors the chapel gets. But even if they did want to visit, the committee has yet to figure out how to sanitize the chapel's historic surfaces for them.

"We can't wipe down our mosaic tile with Clorox wipes, or our oak pews," Walker said.

So with no visitors, and no events for the rest of the year, the chapel has plenty of downtime. But the committee plans to make the most of it, Walker said.

Restoration of the windows in Welch Memorial Hall is concluding now, and work scheduled for November on the chapel's lighting will be completed earlier in the year. After cleaning and rewiring, Walker said, the 1894 building and its opalescent windows, chandeliers and more will look closer to the way they did when they were lit by gas, during the days of the Auburn Theological Seminary.

That work is supported by $267,000 from the city of Auburn's $10 million Downtown Revitalization Grant. Walker said the city also gave the chapel a recent boost in the form of $20,000 in COVID-19 relief funds. That money will allow the committee to install a new computer system, with which it'll be more equipped to use video conferencing app Zoom and publish the chapel's newsletter. The balance will go toward the salaries of the committee's two part-time employees, which are Walker and wedding and tour coordinator Sydney Fischer.

Walker said the chapel is also planning a July membership drive. It will offer the ability to buy paint brushes, for instance, or fund the restoration of a particular chandelier. That interior work will complete the years-long restoration of the chapel, she noted. And that, if nothing else, will provide a source of light in a historic gem otherwise stuck in darkness due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We want to make sure people don't forget about us," Walker said.

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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