Pettit Memorial Chapel

Cemeteries, in general, are not at – not even close to – the top of my list of places I’d like to visit. But on a recent trek to Rockford, Illinois to tour the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home of Kenneth and Phyllis Laurent, we took a short detour in order to stop at the Belvidere Cemetery. Since 1847 the cemetery has served Belvidere and the surrounding area; there are former U.S. Congressmen, Civil War Generals and sports stars buried there. There are about 17,000 graves in the cemetery, among them a Dr. William H. Pettit.

Pettit Memorial Chapel

A Fitting Memorial

Although he practiced medicine for 27 years in Cedar Falls, Iowa, William H. Pettit was born in Belvidere, Illinois on September 3rd, 1850. Raised there as well, he had originally considered a career in education but ultimately became a doctor; he was well-respected, well-liked and very popular, having had one of the largest practices in northern Iowa. He married Emma Glasner of Belvidere in May of 1877. In the spring of 1899 however, an untimely and sudden heart attack took the life of Dr. Pettit at the very young age of 48.

The Glasner Connection

Emma wanted something more than a simple gravesite in order to pay proper tribute to her husband. Her decision was to return Dr. Pettit to Belvidere and build a chapel as the most appropriate memorial for her late husband. Emma’s brother Bill had a home designed in Glencoe, IL by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905 and it was Bill – also in 1905 – who convinced Emma to approach Wright to be the architect for the Chapel. It was Belvidere Cemetery that Emma selected as the location for Dr. Pettit’s final resting place and she commissioned Wright to design the Pettit Chapel as the memorial.

Wright’s design was approved by the Belvidere Cemetery Association in 1906 and the Chapel was finished in 1907 at a cost of $3,000; it stands today next to the gravesite of Dr. William H. Pettit. The chapel is Wright’s only work designed for a cemetery setting and is on the U.S. National Register for Historical Places, having been granted that status on December 1st of 1978.

Chapel windows

Turning northeast onto East Harrison Street off of North State Street, one need only drive two short blocks before entering the cemetery; the chapel is directly ahead and just to the left. The designer of the structure is immediately obvious, as it is of Wright’s Prairie School Style, incorporating many of Wright's early signature designs: the overhanging roof, abstract geometric art glass windows, dark trim on stucco walls, a centrally located fireplace (have you ever seen a fireplace in a chapel or funeral home?) and low-pitched, hipped roof with overhanging eaves – features typical of Wright's important early Prairie buildings such as the Heurtley and Winslow Houses.

Overhanging eaves on the porch

Used for funerals until the 1920s, there is room for chairs in the main part portion of the T-shaped/cruciform-styled building. There is a basement – rare for a Wright design – designed with restrooms for the mourners, as well as some storage. There is also a porch where mourners attending funerals could gather on either nice or inclement days and wait for cars.

According to Wikipedia:

“In 1977, the Belvidere Junior Women's Club raised $60,000 to save the chapel, which had deteriorated. The restoration work was matched to Wright's original work through his drawings of the chapel. On June 8, 1981 (Wright's birthday) the chapel was rededicated. From June until November 2003 the chapel underwent its second period of restoration and repair. $40,000 worth of repairs included a new roof, new floorboards for the porch, new steps and painting. The repairs were paid for through a state of Illinois tourism grant and money from a trust fund set up through the cemetery”.
Wright mural in downtown Belvedere

If you are in the Rockford vicinity and are a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, the unique Pettit Chapel in Belvidere is definitely a place you should visit. If you desire to tour the chapel, it’s a good idea to call before your planned visit.

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Interesting corner of chapel


Harrison at Webster Street
Belvidere, Illinois

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Self-guided tour programs are offered which allow you to view the grounds and learn the rich history of local legends such as Reverend Seth Whitman, General Stephen A. Hurlbut and many more. Stop by their office in Belvidere to pick up a tour program and find out more.

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Interior of Pettit Chapel

Glasner House Tabletop Bulova Clock