News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 28, 2012

High atop Highland Lawn: Bell tower, chapel serve as unique focal points of historic cemetery

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — For more than a century, two unique, distinct buildings have overlooked the grounds of Highland Lawn Cemetery.

To some visitors, the 60-foot-tall bell tower hovering over the entrance, and the chapel atop the highest point of the cemetery’s 139 acres serve as focal points.

To architecture buffs, both structures display Romanesque Revival styles rarely seen in the 21st-century Midwest. But to one little girl, whose young mother died and was buried at Highland Lawn, the place became a special destination.

In that girl’s eyes, the imposing bell tower looked like a castle. With every visit to her mother’s grave, she and her family stopped at the tower, attached to the gateway arch that straddles the main driveway.

“She always wanted to come inside, because it made her feel like a princess,” said Roxe Anne Kesner, who’s handled clerk duties and occasional tours of the historic cemetery for the past 19 years.

The bell tower has greeted the families, friends and acquaintances of most of the 47,984 people interred at Highland Lawn.

The Bedford limestone tower and archway, guarded by wrought-iron gates, were designed in Romanesque Revival style by Chicago architect Paul S. Leitz and built in 1894 — a decade after the city of Terre Haute purchased the sprawling, hilly property and opened the cemetery in 1884.

The tower and arch stand just 200 feet off U.S. 40, the historic National Road.

The chapel opened in November 1893, as a $10,000 project created by Belgian-born Terre Haute architect Josse A. Vrydaugh — the designer of the original DePauw University buildings. The chapel has housed thousands of funeral services and final farewells during the past 119 years. The chapel’s square layout, with a pyramidal roof and gables on three sides, brings in sunlight through round stained-glass windows on the east and west walls, representing Richardsonian Romanesque style, made popular by Henry Hobson Richardson.

The architectural elements of Romanesque include rough-cut stone, round archways and a heavy, fortress look, said Tommy Kleckner, director of Indiana Landmarks western regional office in Terre Haute. The two Highland Lawn buildings are “great examples of the style,” he added, and prime reasons the cemetery is one of only two in Indiana on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Those are really wonderful, prominent structures out there,” Kleckner said.

Using grants and donations, renovations were done to the chapel in 1987 and ’88, and to the bell tower from 1989 to ’91. Otherwise, the structures look virtually unchanged from their 19th-century origins.

On Halloween week, when interest in final resting places heightens, curious folks may know less about the bell tower and chapel than other fabled aspects of Highland Lawn, such as the legend of Stiffy Green, and the mausoleum of Martin Sheets which contained a working telephone (upon his request).

The clock on the bell tower, for example, has never been functional, explained Lennie Snyder, superintendent of cemeteries for the city of Terre Haute. Its hands are stuck at 3 minutes till 4 o’clock. “What the significance of 4 o’clock is, I don’t know,” he said.

The tower’s interior looks a touch medieval. The room inside the tower’s base holds only a small, one-man, access door in its ceiling. A cable, dangling through a hole in the door, allows someone to ring the bell during funerals. Above the ceiling door looms a vertical tunnel, lined in brick, leading to the lookout at the peak. It must be reached by climbing a series of five wooden ladders, each resting against a wood-plank scaffolding platform.

Highland Lawn crews originally used the room beneath the tower as the cemetery office. The adjacent waiting room once served as a place for horse-drawn hearses to pull in, sheltered from weather, so the drivers could conduct business with the office crew before a burial, Snyder explained. The waiting-room arches, now filled with window glass, operated as entry points for the hearses.

“If it was pouring down rain, they could stop in here and do their paperwork,” Snyder said.

The current cemetery office, just to the tower’s north side, was built in 1909 as a waiting station for the Old Interurban Trolley system.

In the renovations two decades ago, new finials were placed atop the tower. Two of the original finials that had disappeared were later found gracing the entrance of a residential driveway, and were returned to Highland Lawn, Snyder said.

At the opposite end of the cemetery, at its northwest side, the chapel awaits families and friends of lost loved ones. The chapel also houses a small bell tower on one side. “They used to be able to climb up there and look out to see a procession was coming,” Snyder said. A cemetery worker in the tower would ring the bell once for every approaching vehicle, as a signal to prepare for the crowd size.

With a dozen pews, the chapel holds approximately 50 people. “We can get 60 in here, if they’re not afraid to rub elbows,” Snyder said.

“This place has amazing acoustics,” Snyder said, trying out the sound. “If you have someone speaking up front during a funeral service, you can hear in the back row just as good as a person on the front row.”

Behind two massive, rolling, wooden doors is a crypt room. Not used since the 1930s, the room contains six lockable crypts, where coffins were stored while a mausoleum for the deceased was being built, or a grave was being prepared. The room is being renovated, and is a stopping point on tours.

The chapel’s basement is also unusual. Its vaulted, brick ceiling caught the eyes of a tour by local bricklayers a few years ago, Snyder said. The bricks appear to cling side-by-side overhead — a rarity in the Midwest. “That’s what [the bricklayers] were marveling at,” Snyder said.

The tours include high school classes, college groups, adults and seniors, Snyder said. As the final resting place of senators, Congress members, mayors, artists, authors and activists, as well as everyday residents, Highland Lawn has a rich heritage.

“People don’t realize how much history’s here,” Snyder said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@