Indian Hill Cemetery and the Russell Chapel: A Gem in the Midst of the City

Indian Hill Cemetery in Middletown, which was established as a part of the mid-century “City Beautiful” movement in 1850, is among numerous mid-1800s cemeteries created throughout the country following the new “rural cemetery movement” philosophy of design which included Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1831. The new philosphy embraced sophisticated landscape design and the use of natural elements like woods, hills and ponds.  Because of its location on a steep hillside, Indian Hill was a perfect location for a beautiful cemetery with such a park-like setting. Many of those initial design aspects are still present after almost 175 years.

Russell Chapel

Along with the beautiful setting and the views afforded from Indian Hill Cemetery, the centerpiece of the property is the Russell Chapel which was built in 1867 on the hillside overlooking Washington Street adjacent to Wesleyan University.  Middletown’s Frances Russell donated the funds to build the Gothic Revival chapel in memory of her late husband Samuel Russell, an entrepreneur and trader.  He was the namesake of the Samuel Wadsworth Russell House, a Greek Revival-style mansion which is now a part of Wesleyan University. Russell was the first president of the Indian Hill Cemetery Association.  The chapel is also known for housing the Meneely Bell, forged in Troy, New York in 1868. Rather than bells recorded and played, the Meneely Bell is still manually rung today.

Recent years had not been kind to the chapel and, as a result, a restoration effort was commenced to bring the historic chapel back to life.  The experienced firm of Kronenberger and Sons Restoration Inc. of Middletown was selected to perform the restoration.  The work included restoring all of the interior woodwork and wainscoting, plaster, flooring and pews (including replication of original decorative medallions) as well as the ornate, original weight-foot, gothic-style entry doors.  More information on Kronenberger & Sons work can here.

During the project, vandals broke into the building and severely damaged the work in progress. The damage including smashing a stain-glass window. Once being locked inside the chapel, they used a piece of scaffolding to break the front door to exit. The damage exceeded a cost of $25,000 and the vandals were never caught. With the exception of the cost and a delay of several weeks, Kronenberger and Sons was able to make the repairs and complete the restoration.

For their efforts, Kronenberger and Sons and Indian Hill Cemetery were the 2023 Association of Builders and Contractors of Connecticut Excellence in Construction Award (Special Jury Award, one of only eleven projects chosen to receive this prestigious award.

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