Dog Mountain, home of the world’s only dog chapel, is situated three miles from downtown St. Johnsbury,VT, just a frisbee toss from the Fairbank’s Scales factory on Route 2. Though the chapel is petite, the size of a rural post office, it feels like a sacred space, complete with pews and stained glass. Perched on a hill amid 150 rolling acres, the chapel is just one part of a property designed with dogs at the fore, free and open to the public, fully appointed with hiking trails, a pond, an dog agility course and one of the last remaining galleries of Stephen Huneck’s humorous, colorful, dog -oriented art.
Huneck– the rugged, mustachioed creator of the chapel, the art, and a thousand details decorating the property, from the pug-faced columns to the prayer flags printed with angel- Labradors– was inspired to build the Dog Chapel with his collaborator and wife, Gwen Huneck in the late 1990s. Free and open to the public since Memorial Day 2000, its walls have become covered with heartfelt, handwritten messages and photographs of beloved pets that have gone to dog heaven. “Grief is an universal language,” Jill Brown told me back in July, “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve held in my arms as they sobbed [over the loss of pets]– and that includes people from Germany and Japan, all over.”
The Dog Chapel, a sanctuary for grief, remembrance and celebration of lost companions, is now, by extension, a memorial to the chapel’s creators as well. Tragically in early January 2010, distressed by financial worries that necessitated staff layoffs, Mr. Huneck, 61, took his life. In July 2011, Yankee Magazine published Justin Shatwell’s moving portrait of Huneck, his life and his legacy. Then, this past June, Huneck’s widow, Gwen Huneck, 61, ended her life as well.
Though the Hunecks had no children of their own, they left behind two long time employees, who are more like surrogate daughters, Jill Brown, Dog Mountain’s General Manager and Amanda McDermott, Creative Director. Also left behind are their business manager, a shipper, a framer, a summer maintenance employee and a new leader, Gwen’s brother, Jonathan Ide, of Madison Wisconsin, who is the administrator of the Huneck estate.
Despite Stephen Huneck’s enormous commercial success as an artist—both Stephen and Gwen Huneck appeared on Oprah to speak about their art in the 1990s; Huneck’s work is held in collections ranging from the Smithsonian to Sandra Bullock’s; and his illustrated children’s book “Sally Goes to the Beach” was a New York Times bestseller—the business, as Ide describes it “always seemed to be hand to mouth.”
Even the dream of realizing the Dog Chapel became an ongoing saga of privation, Ide told me, where the couple was frequently faced with the choice to buy lumber or groceries, and chose lumber. With their personal finances and the business finances lumped together as one entity, when the economic downturn hit, and art sales trickled to a halt, their precarious finances became dire
On the day Stephen’s death was announced, Brown said, the Huneck Gallery was besieged with 500 orders. It’s widely believed that part of Huneck’s intention was to elevate the value of his work, posthumously, and thereby pull the business into the black, a grim plan. But it worked, and the laid off staff were soon hired back. In her husband’s absence, Gwen Huneck assumed the role of sole decision maker for the business, which includes not only the rights to the art, but the land, her home, the gallery and other buildings on the property.
So as Jon Ide works with his late sister’s lawyer to settle her estate, Amanda McDermott and Jill Brown have been taking care of the property, opening seven days a week throughout the summer “high season.” Currently the business is operated so that the sales generated by the Gallery cover staff payroll and the property taxes; and all the donations are relegated towards paying maintenance costs such as painting, plus utilities.
Meanwhile, taking the creative reins, McDermott has helped create a virtual dog chapel online with has garnered 900+ “likes”; she’s created new merchandise– including transparent giclee prints, bumper-stickers, prayer flags and a new e-book, “Sally Discovers Dog Mountain,” and “Sally Goes to New York.” (Plus “Sally Goes to Heaven” forthcoming in the Spring of 2014). Jon Ide is ensuring that the website is upgraded and expects to unveil a new rejuvenated site just in time for the crucial holiday gift season. Furthermore they are working on licensing some of the images of characters for other products. And this Saturday, on October 12th, from 12-4 pm Dog Mountain will be hosting its annual Fall Dog Fest from noon – 4pm.
Ide sums up the stakes, and the road ahead: “There’s nothing else like it in the world, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. But I believe in what they’ve created… standing up on the mountain looking down on the chapel, gallery, the pond, fields, trails—it’s like one giant work of art.”