Down at the narrow end of East Market street, past the eclectic, slanting houses of the Woolen Mills neighborhood, there’s a little white chapel. It’s been there since Christmas of 1887, perched on the bank of the Rivanna River at the very edge of the City of Charlottesville.
The history shows: the white paint is peeling off the clapboard siding. There’s a splintered green shutter dangling off the front of the building. The wooden foundations have been melted away by rainwater, and the stones on the back are loose. The gothic, octagonal bell tower has started to lean precariously towards the road.
According to the city’s records, the building is currently owned by the Woolen Mills Chapel Board of Trustees. But if you want to get in touch with them, it’s going to be difficult: Every official member of the board is long dead. (No wonder they haven’t done any painting.)
Over the years, neighbors have stepped up to make minor repairs on their street’s signature building, though it’s been hard to keep the decay at bay. Five years ago, a group of volunteers created a nonprofit to take control of the building and fundraise for more serious restoration work. They’ve been wrestling with ghosts for control of the chapel ever since.
The situation is complicated because, as chapel neighbor Laura Covert explains, “There’s no procedure to follow to get dead people to sign stuff.”
‘Tragedy of the commons’
The neighborhood’s titular woolen mill was built in the 1840s, and the mill soon became one of Charlottesville’s most productive industries, specializing in cloth for uniforms. The neighborhood grew with the mill. In the old days, Woolen Mills residents would go to different churches around town for morning service, but gather in the Woolen Mills chapel in the afternoon for Sunday school, announcements, hymns, and Bible readings. In the 1950s, there were 40 or 50 regular congregants.
The mill shut its doors in 1961, and the chapel’s period of limbo began.
“After the mill closed, fewer people that were part of that original community were here,” Covert says. “They were getting older, and so eventually, the congregation was breaking up.”
The aging board of the chapel informally enlisted new trustees, a selection of neighbors who were interested in maintaining the chapel. When the chapel needed a new coat of paint, or the roof reshingled, “people have gone around with a can and said, ‘hey can you make a donation,’” says Fred Wolf, an architect and neighbor who sits on the nonprofit board with Covert.
The new trustees never bothered to officially register themselves, instead just chipping in to help with the chapel when they could. In both a legal and a functional sense, the chapel came to be owned by everyone and no one; a community center with no official manager or patron.
Services are still held in the chapel on Sundays: The Rivanna Baptist Church has rented the building for more than 20 years. The congregation declined to speak on the record for this story; Covert says the group is elderly and small but that its members care deeply for the building, even though most do not live in Woolen Mills. Inside the chapel, the red carpets are clean, there are flowers on the tables, and the hymnals are stowed neatly among the pews. The congregation pays the electricity bill each month, but there’s plenty it can’t do, like fix the huge, visible crack running down the length of one interior wall.
Covert says she’s had a front door key for 20 years, long before any notion of a nonprofit ever existed. “Being next door, it’s a neighborhood thing,” she says. “If the light gets left on, who’s going to go over there and turn it off? Me, right? Gotta have the key.”
For years, her stepfather, Pete Syme, also a neighbor, had the chapel checkbook. He would deposit the congregation’s small rent and use the money to cover an insurance policy that Covert calls “insufficient.”
Another neighbor comes by periodically to tend to the plants in the flowerbed outside the chapel’s entrance.
The chapel “does church-related things on Sunday,” says Louis Schultz, Covert’s husband, who has lived in Woolen Mills for 35 years. “Other than that, people park there, people turn around in the parking lot, people have sex in the parking lot, people drink beer and throw it over the hillside, and all the other sort of stuff you do in a church parking lot.”
“I love the building,” says Covert. “I’ve lived here since I was in high school, and it’s always been a community center and I think it’s important that it remains that way. What you get, though, is the tragedy of the commons.”
Repairing the chain
“It was probably imagined that this would go on in perpetuity in some limbo,” says Wolf, but the building’s worsening physical condition means that informal arrangement has become untenable.
The chapel’s well-documented historic value isn’t enough to save it from ownership purgatory. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register, and is designated an Individual Protected Property by the city, but none of those essentially ceremonial listings allow or require the government to carry out maintenance.
Preserving the building, then, falls to the neighborhood. This is tricky because Virginia has specific laws governing religious buildings, and none of the chapel’s original trustees are around to sign the building over to Covert and Wolf’s nonprofit.
Covert, Wolf, and their lawyers have had to provide affidavits from the church’s few living original congregants and show evidence that the community has had input in the decision-making process in order to convince the city’s courts to allow the transfer. Wolf says he expects the process to be finalized any day now, after years of back-and-forth.
The chapel nonprofit has existed since 2015, but it hasn’t continued the informal fundraising that long kept the place afloat—the group hopes to set up a more official system.
There’s serious work to be done. An exterior paint job can run up to $15,000 or $20,0000, says Covert, and that’s not to mention that the bell tower is leaning and the foundation is sinking. A previous renovation gone awry has sent years of rainwater trickling down into the building’s bones.
“I could walk into that building with my bare hands by tearing the stone foundation out,” says Schultz.
The group hopes to give the chapel new life, return it to the thriving community center it once was, and keep the building in stable hands for its next century and beyond.
“Obviously, there’s been a broken chain,” Covert says. “The question is how do you repair that for the future.”