The Vagabond – A local masterpiece of design


By Danny Crownover

One of the most distinctive and most artistic building in Gadsden is the stone chapel located in Forrest Cemetery. The building was constructed ientirely by unskilled Works Progress Administration labor from 1937 to 1938.

At the beginning of the project, nobody thought, least of all those responsible for its design, its authoritative architecture, and the labor that went into it, that it would attract national attention. However, the project would eventually be pronounced as the most outstanding project of its kind undertaken and completed by the WPA anywhere in the United States.

The story behind the construction of the chapel is an interesting one. None of the workmen were skilled stonemasons, nor was their work expected to be of such excellence as to bring architects and artists and government officials from around the country to study its details. The chapel was patterned after an English church of the 12th century.

During the 1930s, the chapel was appraised at a value of $50,000, yet the actual expenditure for material was not over $1,500, which went for cement and window glass. The woodwork, light fixtures and hardware were made in the local WPA shop, which employed only those who were physically handicapped.

The matching of the various colors of stone was so expertly done that the exterior presents a rich texture appearance. Even the chapel’s roof is made from natural stone, the thin slabs of which were cut to resemble slate.

Besides the spacious chapel with its high-arching ceiling, the building contained an office for the sexton and a waiting room and restrooms for men and women. The chapel seats 125 persons and the altar is of natural stone. The interior is faced with one-inch stone slabs with a wider variety of colors being used to provide a rare wall treatment. Beams and trusses used for the arched ceiling were hand-hewn from hardwood logs, while the light fixtures were fashioned out of worn-out shovels, iron wheel rims and other scrap metal. The plumbing fixtures were salvaged from old and abandoned houses. The massive doors used throughout the structure were made in the WPA workshop.

Paul Hofferbert was the building’s architect and construction was under the supervision of WPA superintendent M.H. Tardy. These two men had much to do with instructing the inexperienced men. That they did such a good job of instruction may be traced to the fact that seven of the workmen immediately obtained employment as stone masons at $1 an hour.

The other 20 unskilled men did nearly as well. Somehow, they proved adept in the business and quarried the stone from a nearby mountain and cut it to blueprint specifications.

The workmen made their own stone saw out of such odds and ends as old bedspreads, flanged wheels from some vehicle of undetermined origin and an automobile jack, which was used for the sliding table on which stone was moved under the saw.

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