Friday, April 27, 2018

An Unique Richmond Structure is Dying: The Daubrenet Mortuary Chapel at Oakwood Cemetery


The fate of one of the rarest of Richmond architectural types is literally hanging by a thread, and it may soon disappear forever.  One of the few mortuary chapels in this city is threatened with eminent collapse, and it remains to be seen if anyone will rescue it before it vanishes from the landscape of Oakwood Cemetery.   There are chapels in some Richmond cemeteries, like the former gatehouse and chapel at Hollywood Cemetery (now the cemetery offices) and the mortuary chapel at the Hebrew Cemetery (now brutally stripped of its interior and used as a tool shed).  These chapels were designed for use for foul-weather funerals and the semi-public purposes of their cemeteries and no burials under them were ever intended.  To encounter a private, nineteenth-century building that combines the functions of a religious chapel and a tomb, like that built by Leon Daubrenet in Richmond, or even Virginia, is rare indeed. 

The Daubrenet mortuary chapel at Oakwood Cemetery, circa 1890.


Richmond’s memorial architecture ranges from the granite family monoliths of Hollywood Cemetery to the fantastic, like the Richmond mausoleum of Diamond Peters: http://theshockoeexaminer.blogspot.com/2010/08/diamond-peters-mausoleum-forest-lawn.html  Some mausoleums, like the Peters tomb, have a tiny anteroom, perhaps with a small table for flowers.  In contrast, the structure listed on the Oakwood records as “the Daubrenet vault” has room for several people to be seated, and features a tiered, altar-like shelving for flowers and images and icons, was originally illuminated by windows on two sides, and is also the burial place of family members in a crypt or basement below a wooden floor. 

The story of this interesting structure began, unfortunately, with the death of a baby.


This inscription in French is to the memory of Leon Daubernet’s infant son, Richard, who died in Richmond in 1889.  This small marble plaque on the wall may once had brass plaques in the voids.

The red-brick structure that has sheltered the remains of the Daubrenet family was probably built around 1890.  The previous August, Leon and Marie lost an infant son, Richard.  They built a small brick chapel with a slate roof on the edge of a hillside in Oakwood Cemetery, and on the wall, in French, is a small plaque that says:
Here rests the body of Richard Daubrenet, born at Washington the 22nd of September 1887 – died at Richmond the 6th of August 1889, at the age of twenty-two months and six days.  Regrette de toutes a famille. [roughly translated as “to the sorrow of the family]


This example of the much-weathered scrollwork at a corner of the Daubrenet mortuary chapel is a survivor of 130 Richmond summers and winters.  It hints at the elegant appearance the building must have had when originally completed.

Leon Daubrenet (then spelled “D’Aubrenet”) was 29 when he arrived in America, an ambitious young man with a wife and young daughter, sailing from Liverpool on a steamer ironically named City of Richmond and arriving in New York in October 1883. The couple had some connection with Virginia, as demonstrated by their young son having died and been buried in Richmond, and that the Daubrenets invested considerable money in their brick chapel at Oakwood. In 1889 they were back in Washington and received a permit from the authorities to operate a boiler for a ”French steam laundry.”  His wife died some time during this period and was apparently interred beside her dead child under the little chapel she and Leon had built. When he married Reine Cotte in Henrico County in 1891, Leon is listed as “widower.” 


The padlock suggests it has been many years since anyone entered the Daubrenet chapel.  An inelegant sheet of plywood topped with a metal grate replaced the original door.

While Daubrenet’s “French Steam Laundry” was constantly advertising in the Washington Post and apparently doing well, Leon and his wife’s marriage was deteriorating. In March 1899, Reine Daubrenet filed papers for divorce on the grounds of “gross cruelty and habitual drunkenness” and sought a protective court order to keep Leon from “interfering” with her.  Reine’s divorce never proceeded as Leon died two months later, his death being listed as from “pneumonia.”  Despite his abusive behavior, Reine had Leon brought back to Richmond and buried under the floor of his chapel in Oakwood with his children and first wife.  According to cemetery records, on the same day Leon was interred in the Daubrenet “vault” so was Martha Daubrenet, Leon’s eight-year-old daughter who died of appendicitis and who was evidently buried elsewhere, and her body then moved to the family mortuary chapel in Oakwood.


Inside the Daubrenet mortuary chapel, looking toward the entrance.  At some point the floor collapsed into the “crypt” below.  Note that the walls of the lower level were once whitewashed, and the overturned bench on top of the shattered floor.  Below the fallen debris of the interior of the building, Leon Daubrenet and his family are buried.

Throughout the early 1900s, Reine Daubrenet lived in Washington with a bewildering variety of family and extended family (including some related to Leon’s first wife), apparently still successfully running the family’s laundry business.  As she grew older, perhaps she visited Richmond: an old woman with a French accent, unlocking the door of the Daubrenet memorial and sitting quietly in the musty interior and lighting a candle for the dead below her.

A correspondent for a Richmond newspaper wrote an article in 1920 about Oakwood Cemetery, and provided a unique description of the interior of the Daubrenet chapel:
One of the most unusual spots in the entire place is the Daubrenet vault, built about 1890 by M. Daubrenet, of Washington, a Frenchman, as the final resting place of his infant son.  The structure is of red brick, and looks like a little chapel, which, indeed, it is, for on the ground floor there is an altar completely enriched with the symbols of the Roman Catholic Church, of which the owner is known to be a devout son.  To one side of the door is a stairway leading to the crypt where not only is the body of the child, but also that of Madame Daubrenet.


The other end of the chapel, showing the tiered altar mentioned by the visitor to the Daubrenet chapel in 1920 as decorated with religious symbols and imagery.  When the floor collapsed, this structure slid down the wall and the ghost mark of the original position can be seen above it.  The line along the far wall shows the original floor level.

A conjectural drawing of the interior of the Daubrenet mortuary chapel as it may have once appeared.  Sketch by the author.

In 1938, Reine, the second Madame Daubrenet, was buried with Leon and Leon’s first wife and their various children under the family chapel after she died in Philadelphia at age 92.  The L. T. Christian Funeral Home handled the arrangements, meeting the train and picking up Reine’s body at Broad Street Station on July 13th.   L. T. Christian charged five dollars to hire a man to “clean up vault,” and on the burial contract was a very specific instruction for Reine’s interment: “put in Daubrenet vault beside husband Leon Daubrenet.”  This stipulation seems to indicate that, even in the dark “crypt” below the chapel, the graves must have been clearly and individually marked.

A sidebar to the story of Richmond’s little mortuary chapel is the discovery of a business card taped to the L.T. Christian Funeral Home card for Reine Daubrenet’s funeral arrangements: the card of Henri Marceau, Assistant Director at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Marceau was a museum curator and director of considerable fame, succeeding Fiske Kimball as the Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Marceau’s biographical information notes nothing more specific beyond the fact he was born in Richmond in 1896.  In various census records he is listed as Reine Daubrenet’s son or grandson, although Marceau was actually probably the son of Leon Daubrenet’s daughter Jeanne by his first wife. 


The business card of Henri Gabriel Marceau (1896-1969), found attached to the L.T. Christian funeral home contract in the records of the Library of Virginia.  After she died in 1938, Henri  brought Reine Daubrenet back to Richmond for her burial in the family mortuary chapel.

In 1918, Marceau filled out his draft registration saying his father was French and that his nearest relative was a Jeanne Marceau, who lived at the same address in Washington as Reine Daubrenet.  Despite his tangled patrimony, Marceau apparently accompanied Reine’s body to Richmond (it may have been Marceau who she was visiting in Philadelphia when she died) and made arrangements for the woman regarded as his mother to join the rest of the family under Oakwood Cemetery’s little brick chapel.  Marceau himself, after a long and distinguished career in the art and museum field, chose to be buried after his death in 1969 in Philadelphia, far from the deteriorating Victorian sentimentalities of his Richmond family.


Showing how perilous the condition of the Daubrenet is today, this roof support rests on a thin column of plaster after the supporting brickwork has fallen away.  The collapse of the heavy roof, weighted with slate, will mean the end of this building.


Mausoleums and tombs are generally built of the most impervious material available to shelter the bodies of the dead for all time.  Granite, steel, marble, and iron are usually chosen, not wood and brick and slate.  What explains the choice by Daubrenet for his mortuary chapel of brick, wood trim and a wooden roof covered with slate shingles?  Perhaps an immigrant’s ignorance of the impermanent nature of buildings in Virginia, structures under siege by termites, extremes of weather and occasional hurricanes.  Perhaps it was all the Daubrenets could afford.  Hinting at this, the proud name over the door proclaims “L. DAUBRENET” in large letters, but instead of being engraved in granite, the plaque is made of rusting galvanized tin letters and the “L” has fallen off.  Perhaps the Daubrenets regarded this structure as much a chapel as it was a tomb, and as such would surely be the beneficiary of maintenance, just as you would expect for any building and especially one of such high purpose.

The inscription above the door to the Daubrenet mortuary chapel at Oakwood Cemetery.  The name of the family has been commemorated in galvanized tin instead of granite or marble.



A view of the interior of the building, showing the altar in the foreground and the collapsed floor.  Note also the extremely fragile state of the opposite wall and roof above.

The Daubrenet chapel has been wrecked by vandals, making it necessary at some point to brick up the windows.  The remains of the original door is among the debris inside the chapel on top of the now-collapsed floor, a fragile door which may have demanded the installation of a steel barred door with padlock.  The altar, once so richly adorned with Catholic symbols and imagery, is intact but has slid down the wall from its original position.  The layer of debris and the collapsed floor has made it impossible to identify any grave markers, although the fact the “crypt” walls were once whitewashed indicates there was once standing room below the main floor.

Ironically for a building whose only purpose was the shelter of the bodies of the dead and perpetuating forever the memory of the dead, the Daubrenet mortuary chapel at Oakwood Cemetery is dying.  The roof is literally hanging by a thread, and when the weight of that slate roof finally overcomes the underpinnings underneath, the roof will collapse into the brickwork, destroying both.  The City of Richmond (who apparently has no obligation to maintain a structure that is still in legally in the hands of Daubrenet descendants somewhere) will clear off the debris and demolish the walls and what remains of perhaps the only private mortuary chapel in Richmond will disappear forever.  Now far from the ground level in what had been the “crypt” below, the graves of the Daubrenets  – the little children, the first wife, the abusive husband, and the dutiful Reine - will all be lost along with memory of their entire family.

Regrette de toutes a famille.


- Selden.



5 comments:

Paul Creasy said...

Great article! We need to take a road trip to see it. I also loved the link to the Diamond Peters tomb. Really interesting and great pictures. You guys are doing a great job documenting this unknown Richmond history.

Ray B. said...

Thanks Paul!!!

Hope Martin said...

This is a great article. Can anyone track down the rightful owner's?

Selden said...

I'm afraid that is going to be pretty tough, since it has been almost eighty years since the last documented burial at the site. I imagine the only possible way would be to run down the descendants, if any, of Henri Marceau.

Ray B. said...

Henri Marceau died iin 1969 - his obit in the NYTimes does not list any surviving relatives.