by James P. Hughes
Finger Lakes country offers a scenic tableau, often with a fresh view around virtually every bend in the road. Now and then, it takes curiosity, patience and more than just a few of those “bends in the road” to locate some of the region’s uncommon gems. One of those is certainly Garrett Memorial Chapel, tucked away on Bluff Point overlooking Keuka Lake.
I had heard of the chapel and knew a bit of its curious history, but had viewed it only from afar on its perch high above the lake. On a leafless winter day, the “Little Chapel on the Mount” is barely visible, and once the wooded hillside is in full bloom, it disappears completely. As unique as its Norman Gothic style, stained-glass windows and remote location might be, how Garrett Memorial Chapel came to exist is a most fascinating tale.
Paul Garrett was a consummate businessman and winemaker in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The North Carolina native created a six-state wine empire, Garrett & Company, encompassing thousands of vineyard acres and multiple processing plants. Known at one time as the “Dean of American Winemakers,” Garret produced some ten million gallons of wine per year. His signature product, Virginia Dare, became the bestselling wine of its day in America.
The Garretts Arrive at Bluff Point
While features amenable to Garrett’s grape-growing needs – soil and terrain among them – first drew the vintner to Finger Lakes country, the beauty of the region increasingly appealed to him, his wife Evelyn, and their family. As Garret continued to travel the nation visiting his business properties, the family increasingly favored Keuka Lake for summer residency. In 1917, a spacious summer home and boathouse were constructed at Bluff Point and the Garretts settled in, quickly becoming absorbed in local activities.
Notwithstanding the Garrett’s financial success, there was sadness within the family. Of the seven children born to Paul and Evelyn Garrett, three daughters and four sons, all but one of the boys died in infancy. The fourth, Charles, died of tuberculosis in 1930 at age 26. His dying wish was “to take me home to Bluff Point, to Keuka Lake.”
Shortly after the death of Charles, Paul and Evelyn began construction of the chapel for “worship and interment” in memory of their son. The Garretts were supporters of Cornell University, and it’s said the Cornell football team was among many who assisted in clearing the wooded hillside site. From each hand-cut stone to every bronze and oak door, the artistry and craftsmanship were carefully planned, with a goal of creating “a place of serene beauty and quiet spirituality.” Today, Paul, Evelyn, all of their children and some of their grandchildren repose in the chapel’s crypt.
The Chapel Aura Remains
Beyond a memorial and a burial place for family members, the Garretts wished the chapel to “cast a sermon in stone,” to become a seasonal place of reverence and prayer for the community well into the future. At the chapel’s dedication in July of 1931, Paul Garrett hoped “it would have some message for everyone, one that calls for fine resolution and a better life.”
After a scenic drive of several miles along Skyline Drive, with Keuka Lake views on both sides, you will arrive at the chapel’s wooded Bluff Point setting. With its significant architectural features, including unique stained-glass windows by celebrated artist Frederick Wilson, the Garrett Memorial Chapel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
Despite its secluded location, for almost a century now the Garretts’ initial wishes have been answered. Non-denominational services, popular with visitors and locals alike, are held throughout the months of July and August. The chapel has become a popular venue for weddings, and on occasion hosts concerts and special events. It is open to the visiting public each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from late spring through early autumn.
On any random outing, park along the narrow upper road, walk through the iron gate and down a long stone stairway. From there, stroll the grounds and appreciate the stately chapel with its panoramic view of Keuka Lake below. Then – for a moment, or perhaps longer – ponder the obstacles faced by those who incorporated such a dignified structure into that sheer hillside.
Garrett Memorial Chapel
5251 Skyline Dr, Penn Yan, NY 14527