Among the gardens in Frankfort, both public and private, perhaps the most beautiful is the 100-acre Frankfort Cemetery on a picturesque East Main Street hill overlooking the Kentucky River and downtown.
The final resting place of many, the cemetery has been called “The Westminster Abbey of Kentucky” for its beauty and elegance. On the grounds is a chapel, a Romanesque structure built in 1890.
Members of The Garden Club of Frankfort, a group dedicated — among other things — to preserving and protecting the historic gardens, is working to once again restore and preserve the chapel.
According to Carla Hawkins, current president of the club that was founded in March of 1924, club members have worked to maintain the chapel and the gardens surrounding it through financial contributions and physical labor for more than 40 years.
Working in partnership with the Frankfort Cemetery Board and others in the community, the club is currently focusing its attention to again renovating the chapel to be used now and preserved for future generations.
“We hope to have Chautauqua lectures here,” said Hawkins, “and perhaps band concerts, too. We’ve learned from the history of the cemetery that concerts and picnics were once held on the grounds in the summer.”
But before those things happen, the chapel restoration that began in the late 1970s needs to be completed and updated.
Patty Norris Peavler is the vice chairman of the cemetery board and a lifelong Frankfort resident.
“Underground utilities have been brought in from Glenn’s Creek Road (which borders the cemetery on the east) and that’s enabled us to add a heating and air conditioning system,” Peavler said. “With that, the chapel can be used in all seasons.”
With the original renovation, the plan was to hook up electric from a source in the cemetery. For some long-forgotten reason, that didn’t happen, and the chapel set wired without power for four decades.
“Patty got a grant from the Order of Kentucky Colonels,” said Hawkins, “and that paid for getting power to the building.”
With the availability of power, an HVAC system was added. Prior to that, the chapel suffered from weather changes that adversely affected the plaster walls, causing the paint to pop off.
“If there was a funeral in here in the winter,” Peavler said, “we would put in a salamander (portable heater). It would warm the place up — then the paint would pop off the walls.”
According to the “History of The Garden Club of Frankfort,” the restoration of the chapel began as a club project in 1974. Originally designed for funeral services before interment, the chapel had fallen into disrepair and, beginning in 1932, it was used as a storage building for equipment used to maintain the grounds.
According to the history, the cemetery board even considered demolishing it before The Garden Club of Frankfort stepped in and was instrumental in having it listed on the National Register of Historic Places in July of 1974.
A committee from the club met with members of the cemetery board and received permission to restore the chapel if outside funds could be secured. Those came by way of a grant from then Gov. Julian M. Carroll, who gave the club $40,000 from his contingency fund to “restore and preserve the chapel in the Frankfort Cemetery.”
Carroll later provided another $5,000 for “extensive repairs” for the slate roof. The roof today is covered with dimensional asphalt shingles.
With restoration proceeding toward a planned dedication in November of 1977, challenges that no one could have foreseen arose that prevented it from happening — and it formally hasn’t happened yet.
First, in October, the chapel’s eight stained glass windows were stolen and never recovered, putting the dedication on hold. In the summer of 1978, amethyst art glass was used to replace the windows and the second attempt at dedication was set for 5:30 p.m. Dec. 10, 1978, with Ruth Bodell, who served as chair of the restoration committee, presiding.
Instead of thieves, this time it was the wrath of Mother Nature that forced the cancellation of the dedication as the great flood of 1978 brought Frankfort to a standstill.
The South Frankfort floodwall was still on the drawing board, resulting in South Frankfort and Bellepoint being inundated. Travel into town was almost impossible, forcing Gov. Carroll to order the town shut down.
The dedication was canceled for a second time in just more than a year. And, it would be more than 25 years before it was discussed again. Across that time, deterioration had taken its toll requiring more roof repair and painting since there was no heat in the building.
While there’s no formal dedication planned, club members are hoping the chapel will be sparkly and ready for summer programs in the cemetery.
“The cemetery is one of the most visited places in Frankfort,” said Hawkins. “We want the chapel to be lovely for those visitors.”
About the club
When The Garden Club of Frankfort was founded in 1924, a woman’s public identity was tied to that of her husband. It was as if they had no given first names, like Mary Smith or Sue Jones, but were rather Mrs. William Smith or Mrs. Robert Jones.
Only those who never married seemed to have first names.
Most didn’t work out of the home and avenues for creativity were sometimes limited. But while social convention defined how they lived, it didn’t inhibit their creativity and desire to do something meaningful in the community.
In such a climate, The Garden Club of Frankfort came into existence, its charter calling for at least 100 members.
“That 100 is still in our charter,” said Hawkins, “and we currently have 80 active members and 10 honorary ones. Also, we now welcome men into the club. We have three!”
Once upon a time, the club roster read like the who’s who of Frankfort. Sometimes, it was described as “the white glove club.”
“We still have some who might fall into that category,” said Hawkins, “but we also have many members who are avid gardeners themselves, those who like to plan and work on beautification projects and those who just like to come to the meetings.”
The club continues to work on beautifying the entrances into Frankfort and has received several awards for its efforts. Members also work on projects in places like the cemetery, including the grounds and the chapel.
The club’s motto, which is the same as that of The Garden Club of America, captures the spirit then — and now:
“To stimulate knowledge and love of gardening among amateurs; to share the advantage of association through conference and correspondence in this country and abroad; to aid in the protection of native plants and birds, and to encourage civic beauty and planting.”
Meetings are 2 p.m. the second Friday of each month at the Franklin County Extension Office, 101 Lakeview Ct. All meetings are open to the public. For more information, visit the club’s Facebook page, “The Garden Club of Frankfort” or contact Hawkins, firstname.lastname@example.org.