Opening eyes to Chapel of the Chimes Oakland’s unexpected beauty
By Lou Fancher
People in the Bay Area and around the world for 113 years have come to know Chapel of the Chimes Oakland in a number of ways and for a variety of reasons.
Built in 1909 and most-notably redesigned in 1928 by California architect Julia Morgan, families and individuals who have experienced the loss of a loved one come to the property to plan funerals, cremations, signature memorial ceremonies, burial or internment and more. Lovers of 20th century architecture or history buffs with a special interest in groundbreaking architectural pioneers such as Morgan visit the building and marvel at the breathtaking gardens, fountains, stairwells, alcoves, cloisters, chapels and the abundant, natural light that pours through soaring, vaulted ceilings.
Most rare of all, an annual one-day Garden of Memory summer solstice event each June has people moving freely among Bay Area composers, musicians and other artists simultaneously presenting performances throughout the space and attracts an audience of several thousand to the building each year. A miniature crescendo satisfying these desires or simply introducing curious newcomers with no expectations arrives in the form of fact-filled, docent-led small group tours. In a postpandemic partnership that began last year, Local Food Adventures owner/operator Lauren McCabe Herpich leads a program that offers free, docent-guided walking tours of the chapel about once a month.
“Last winter, (General Manager) Cary Boisvert reached out to me about leading their docent tours,” Herpich said in a phone interview. “In 2018, I had started a seasonal food tour with a fun Halloween theme. It included stops at Chapel of the Chimes and (the adjacent) Mountain View Cemetery. We started with cookies from Fentons, did the chapel, had Ghirardelli chocolates I brought to the cemetery because Domingo Ghirardelli is interred there and finished with mai tais at the Kona Club because Trader Vic is also interred at Mountain View. Because I was already familiar with the building, Cary asked me to collaborate and launch the program.”The 90-minute tour guides participants through every space and architectural detail of the property. Afterward, a light breakfast is available in an outdoor courtyard. As per Herpich’s Local Food Adventures model, items come from nearby businesses, such as pastries from La Farine Bakery. The annual tour on Jan. 20 that celebrates Morgan’s birthday adds, as could be expected, cake.
Beyond cake and croissants, though, what gets Herpich and tour visitors most jazzed is the magnificence of the building and Morgan’s astonishing path. Morgan became one of America’s earliest and most recognized and successful women architect/engineers in the history of the male-dominated industry. Herpich said it’s astonishing to realize that Morgan and other women had only recently won the right to vote (the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920), when she began designing and building the world famous Hearst Castle in San Simeon and Chapel of the Chimes Oakland.
“I love talking about Julia Morgan, especially as a female business owner at the turn of the 20th century. She was so prominent. She was independent: Wore dresses but always had pants on underneath so she could climb up ladders. She was innovative: The chapel has one of the first retractable skylights ever. In terms of sustainability and reusing material, she was ahead of her time. She’d take materials from one location and use them somewhere else. She was so prolific, this happened all the time.”
In fact, several features directly connect the chapel to Hearst Castle.
“There’s a staircase that was originally built for the Hearst Castle,” said Herpich. “(William Randolph) Hearst didn’t want it, so Julia brought it up to Oakland.”
The same square tiles used in a pool at the Hearst also add glorious color at the chapel.
“The tiles are a beautiful turquoise and cerulean blue with gold and green highlights,” she said.
Herpich said she knew nothing about Morgan when she moved to California. Gradually, she discovered the “Morgan touch” everywhere.
“I tell the story of a neighborhood through food on our tours, which includes the architecture and the history it represented. When I started my food tours in Rockridge, I found she built the Presbyterian church that’s right there on College Avenue. In another location, Grand Lake in Oakland, she’s in a mural of prominent people in the Bay Area. She’s just everywhere.”
The building includes a columbarium where the cremated remains of the dead are stored. Herpich said it’s surprisingly uplifting.
“It’s not somber. It’s like being in a gothic library, but it’s urns on the shelving, not books. Some of them actually look like books, because that style was popular at the turn of the (last) century.”
Because architect Aaron Green, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, added some features in the 1960s, the building provides a walk through 20th century architectural history.
“The building completed by Cunningham and Politeo in 1909 was originally the ticketing station for the Key streetcar that came up Piedmont Avenue. You can see the distinct architectural elements, like square penny tile on the floor with lots of grout to prevent transit passengers from slipping. Then you see Morgan’s redesign in the 1920s where lanterns in the corners were taken out but the alcoves preserved and other spectacular marvels, and then you see Green’s additions like the mausoleum.”
Having led four tours and anticipating the next one on June 17 will have another group of roughly 25 people gasping at the chapel’s unexpected beauty, Herpich said she’s thrilled to open more eyes to Morgan’s accomplishments.
“They’re shocked that this hidden gem exists in Oakland. From the outside, they think it’s just a standard church. Inside? Well, people just don’t expect the beauty.”
In a time when the unexpected is to be expected, Herpich said the pandemic has caused her and most people to reassess their priorities. Her food tours took a mighty hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, with restaurants along the treks closed and people sheltering in place.
“I think Local Food Adventures 3.0 is going to be different. I’ll do custom gift box orders, virtual ice cream socials and corporate events, but the margins are just tough. I might add food market hall tours in single locations, and I’m writing a book about food tours worldwide. I won’t ever abandon my food tour network, but I hope the honor and fun of leading tours like Chapel of the Chimes continues and maybe expands to other locations.”