Woodlawn Cemetery chapel is symbol of Elmira’s historical architecture duo

In December of 1907, after over a year’s construction and at a cost of $17,000, a new mortuary chapel was opened at Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery. The headline in the Dec. 8 Telegram read, “It may be a pleasure to die just to have a chance to have last rites observed in this artistic vestibule to the grave.” 

Earlier in the week, on Dec. 6, the Star-Gazette described the chapel, designed by architects Pierce & Bickford, as “the most beautiful chapel for religious purposes in the city … ” The paper stated that the purpose of the new chapel was “to afford a beautiful house in which the dead may be given fitting burial services without cost and where all may be served alike …” 

This year, 2023, the Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery are undertaking a major campaign to restore the chapel. Old buildings are witnesses to the aesthetic and cultural history of our city. They help to give us a sense of place and a connection to the past. In addition, historic buildings often represent something famous or important to people who live in a city or those visiting. The fact that local architects Pierce & Bickford designed the chapel makes it historically significant.

“For a period of at least three decades, 1890-1920, Joseph H. Pierce and Hiram H. Bickford were the foremost architects of the central-southern tier of New York State. In Elmira, a city with a half dozen firms, no others matched Pierce & Bickford’s facility in handling the most up-to-date stylistic fashions. Their professional supremacy extended east to Cortland, north to Geneva and west to Allegany County. They were also a major influence in northern Pennsylvania and received large commissions throughout the rest of New York and in New Jersey.” (Architects of Standing, Pierce and Bickford, Elmira, N.Y. 1890-1932 by Roger G. Reed)

The mortuary chapel opened at Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery in 1907.

Pierce and Bickford buildings dominate Elmira: Elmira City Hall 1895, the former Iszard’s Building 1923, Elmira Free Academy 1911 (Finn Academy today), Hedding Methodist Episcopal Church 1899 (OF HOPE Church today), the former Fire Station Number 4 1897, the second and now former YMCA building 1922 (northeast corner of East Church Street and the Clemens Center Parkway, the former Southside High School 1924, and others, as well as innumerable homes throughout the city. Some of their buildings no longer stand, such as the original Steele Memorial Library and YMCA building 1893 that was located on the southeast corner of Market and Lake streets.

They kept busy with a multitude of projects. They designed nine buildings for the American LaFrance Company in 1905. In a brochure printed in 1912 the company boasted that it was “The Largest Plant in the World Devoted Exclusively to the Manufacture of Motor Fire Apparatus.” Included in the list of their projects were stables, a tobacco house, a cottage, barns and rooves and coal sheds for the railroad company and a fire escape for the Arnot Ogden Hospital in 1905.

Joseph Pierce was born in 1855 in Dundee, New York. His father, Herschel W. Pierce, was leading builder in southern Yates County. By 1890 Herschel was calling himself an architect. Joseph worked for his father and studied drafting at Starkey Seminary. Soon after graduation he came to Elmira working as a draftsman for a little-known architect.  Within a year he was working for Warren H. Hayes,  the first graduate of the School of Architecture at Cornell University. (Architects of Standing). Eventually he became partners with Otis Dockstader. They specialized in domestic and church architecture. Perhaps one of Pierce & Dockstader’s most notable projects is the former First Baptist Church, 1889,  which occupies the east side of Wisner Park in downtown Elmira.

Hiram Hooker Bickford was born in Barre, Vermont in 1863. Apparently little is known of his background. One source states that he, “acquired training in draftsmanship while employed in the offices in Buffalo and other cities …” (Architects of Standing) He joined the firm of Pierce & Dockstader in 1889 as chief draftsman for the firm.

Shortly after Bickford’s arrival in Elmira in 1890, the firm of Pierce and Dockstader dissolved for reasons which may only be speculated upon. In April of 1891 the partnership of Pierce & Bickford was announced. Within the next two years they were very busy. 

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In 1892 the southeast corner of Lake and Market Streets was purchased by the YMCA for the purpose of erecting a building for the youth of Elmira. Pierce & Bickford were the architects. When it was determined the YMCA did not need all the land, an agreement was made with the newly organized Steele Memorial Library “to erect on the lot a building … in substantial accordance with the plans prepared by Pierce and Bickford” for the YMCA. (Chemung County Historical Journal 1962) It was an impressive five-story building with the library on the fourth and fifth floors. The building was razed in 1960 to make way for a parking lot for the former Marine Midland Trust Company.

According to Roger Reed in “Architects of Standing” “The firm’s masterpiece of Renaissance styling is the Elmira City Hall. In April, 1895, the city held a competition for the design of a new municipal building. Eight architectural firms submitted plans: three from Elmira, four from New York City and one from Rochester. The accepted submission, announced in June was by Pierce & Bickford.”

The architects were astute and aggressive businessmen. Their residential work for prominent citizens allowed them to make important social contacts which led to more commissions. Roger Reed noted that “as prominent members of local society, both men belonged to the Republican Party, the City Club and the Century Club … the Elmira Country Club, the Elmira Businessmen’s Association, the Rotary Club, and Masonic Brotherhood.” They also contributed to Elmira College, the Boy Scouts and their local church and were Sons of the American Revolution.  Apparently they kept track of buildings that burned down as they would send a note of condolence to the owner and tell him they could rebuild the structure and make it more fire proof.

World War I slowed the work of Pierce and Bickford, but major projects remained for them to tackle. The Elmira Advertiser headline for May 17, 1923 was “New Iszard Store Plan Is Perfect.” In announcing that work was about to begin the paper noted that “the new store building on North Main Street … will be one of the most modern department stores in this section of the country …”  A little over a year later the Sunday Telegram headlined “Southside High School Will Be Opened Formally On Monday Morning.”

Hiram Bickford died in November 1929. Joseph Pierce carried on the business until his death in February 1932. It is interesting to note that one of the last jobs Pierce worked on in Elmira was the former Gorton Coy Department Store on the northeast corner of North Main and West Water streets, which was designed in 1930.

Jim Hare is a former history teacher and mayor of the City of Elmira. His column appears monthly in the Star-Gazette.

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