“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Would you look at this? Oh, my God!”
As Paula Pethtel enters the Dog Chapel, her reaction is a typical one. Just about everyone invokes the Lord’s name — or cries, or is stunned into silence — when they set foot in this moving memorial to pooches built by artist Stephen Huneck.
On a recent sunny day, Pethtel and her husband, Rick, have arrived at Dog Mountain by accident. “We saw the sign from the road,” says Rick, referring to a stone structure topped by carvings of a woman with two dogs, and the words “Dog Chapel” underscored by an arrow pointing up the hill. But, as it happens, this serendipity couldn’t be more perfect: The couple from Sharon are driving through the Northeast Kingdom with their 10-year-old beagle, Poppy, whose short life on this planet is about to come to an end. “She’s filled with cancer,” Paula Pethtel says sadly. “We have to put her down next week.”
The world’s only Dog Chapel is situated three miles from downtown St. Johnsbury, perched on a hill amid 150 rolling acres that include hiking trails, a pond and a gallery filled with Huneck’s canine-centric sculptures, prints and books. The steepled, white-clapboard chapel has a sky-blue, arched ceiling; seven stained-glass windows featuring, yes, dogs; and a hardwood floor that’s been scuffed by thousands of feet — and paws. Dogs are welcome here, says a sign that’s hardly necessary.
No bigger than a two-car garage, the chapel is lovely and calming — as is the celestial music discreetly wafting from a CD player. But what really astonish newcomers are the walls, covered floor to ceiling with photographs, cards and Post-it notes — messages to and memoria for dearly departed pets. The layers on layers of paper make this an archaeological site of love and mourning. They also testify to the fact that the place has become a popular tourist attraction in the Northeast Kingdom, according to Dog Mountain general manager Jill Brown.
The chapel is now a monument to its founders, as well. The four pews and a motley assortment of carved dogs face a central framed photograph, set on an easel at the back of the room. In the image, the smiling faces of Stephen and Gwen Huneck suggest a happier time at Dog Mountain, before a shocking pair of tragedies changed everything. Stephen Huneck committed suicide in January 2010, reportedly devastated by dire financial circumstances that led to eliminating some dozen employees. Left to manage Dog Mountain, and her own grief, Gwen struggled for three and a half years before taking her own life last July. Both Hunecks died at 61, and intestate — without a will.
Gwen left behind Brown, 31, who had been her personal assistant for three years; and Dog Mountain graphic designer/creative director Amanda McDermott, 33; along with a handful of other dedicated staff and a black Lab puppy named Sally. Gwen’s older brother, software engineer Jonathan Ide, weighs in on the affairs of Dog Mountain and oversees the settlement of the Hunecks’ muddled estate from his home in Madison, Wisc. And the friends of Dog Mountain are left wondering how — and if — the beloved place can survive such terrible losses.
This past summer, dozens of volunteers showed up for a “Labor of Love” work party to clean, paint, mow and fix things on the property, illustrating how much Dog Mountain now relies on the kindness of strangers. Brown says she wished she could have said to Gwen, “See this? Look at all the people here to help; there is so much hope.”
Sales of Huneck’s work cover payroll and utilities for now, Brown says, but there’s little to spare for maintenance and repairs at Dog Mountain. Yet Brown, McDermott and Ide are determined to get through the challenges they face and come out with a viable enterprise on the other side.
First and foremost comes resolving a “fairly complex” estate, as Ide puts it in a phone call from his home. That estate includes the Dog Mountain property and several buildings on it; two residences, neither of which has yet been appraised; the inventory of original artwork and the artist’s intellectual property of images. Adding to the confusion, the Hunecks did not separate their personal and corporate finances, Brown says — and for that reason she still has “no idea how much it actually costs to run this place.”
The financial management at Dog Mountain has always been “a little bit rocky,” says Ide. “Gwen and Stephen were wonderful artists and had incredible energy and worked on all sorts of things. But they really didn’t have an appetite for the numbers and accounting and all that business … They were living hand-to-mouth.”
Some observers have wondered why Dog Mountain doesn’t just become a nonprofit or foundation. It’s not that simple, though Ide says the idea “has been discussed from time to time for quite a number of years.” A relationship with Catamount Arts in downtown St. Johnsbury — the center maintains a small gallery featuring Huneck’s work — suggests an opportunity to acquire, perhaps, a fiscal agent. Catamount executive director Jody Fried says in a phone conversation that he is committed to Dog Mountain and exploring how his organization could support the place. But right now, Ide and his crew are focused on the immediate future of the Huneck enterprise. No options can even be considered until the estate is sorted out.
“The bottom line is, I would like Dog Mountain to survive and continue and be sustainable,” Ide says. “What form that takes has yet to be determined, but that’s the goal here.”
Stephen Huneck was a ruggedly handsome, mustachioed artist, a burly Massachusetts transplant who, according to Brown, never let on that he was troubled. He was the kind of guy who would come to work and greet everyone with a smile, she says. “He really enjoyed making people laugh, making them happy through the art.”
Anyone who knew his story could tell you that Huneck was grateful for his second chance. He miraculously survived a grave illness — adult respiratory distress syndrome — after a fall in 1994, and reported having a near-death experience that inspired him to create Dog Chapel.
It was another fluke of circumstance that helped him pay for it. According to The Art of Stephen Huneck, by Laura Beach (Abrams, 2004), “The unexpected acquisition of an antique Sioux war shirt that Huneck quickly resold to a New York art dealer allowed him to settle his substantial medical bills and buy the 150-acre parcel on which the chapel and its surrounding structures were built.”
Huneck’s folk-style work is timeless and appealing. His career began when a passerby offered to buy an angel figure Huneck had carved. Long a dog lover, his interest in depicting animals quickly evolved. You don’t have to be a “dog person” to appreciate his whimsical prints and sculptures. His “Life is a ball” image — featuring, of course, a dog with a ball — has been wildly popular, Brown says. Perhaps that’s because dogs so innocently remind humans to have more fun.
In the 1990s through the early aughts, Huneck appeared to be achieving considerable mainstream success for an artist. Stephen and Gwen were invited on Oprah Winfrey’s television show to talk about his art, and such diverse collectors as the Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and movie star Sandra Bullock acquired pieces. Huneck’s illustrated children’s book Sally Goes to the Beach was a New York Times best seller in 2000 — and was followed by a number of other books featuring the adventurous black Lab. (The current real-life Sally, adopted by McDermott, is a happy and frisky greeter at Dog Mountain.)
For a time, Huneck’s work sustained a gallery in Woodstock and another, run by an independent proprietor for just a year, in Stowe. Frog Hollow in Burlington has long represented Huneck’s work, and continues to. In the artist’s heyday, there were galleries, too, in Nantucket, Key West, Breckenridge, Santa Fe and Carmel. All of them were closed by 2005, says Brown.
Huneck began building his visionary Dog Chapel in the late ’90s, following the months of physical therapy it took him to regain mobility after his illness, and he finished it in 2000. “It opened on Memorial Day weekend,” Brown recalls, adding that the holiday henceforth will be known as Huneck Memorial Day at Dog Mountain.
Thirteen years ago, the couple could not have foreseen this unfortunate second significance of their chapel, which has offered solace to thousands of bereaved pet owners annually. “Stephen dreamed up a place where people could go to celebrate the spiritual bond we have with our animals,” Brown says. “Peace, friendship, the joy an animal brings. Loving a dog is a universal language,” she continues. “I see people from all over the world here, and they all say the same thing [in their messages]: Thank you, I love you, I miss you. The wave of emotion that hits you…”
Brown breaks off. She goes on to surmise that the tsunami of other people’s sorrow — as well as being constantly surrounded by reminders of her husband — contributed to Gwen Huneck’s eventual surrender. This even though, for a posthumous reissue of The Art of Stephen Huneck, Gwen bravely wrote: “It makes my heart glad to see how much comfort and joy [the chapel] continues to bring others. Keeping Dog Mountain going gives my life purpose. I feel honored to be part of such an inspirational, healing and spiritual place.”
“It was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen, her losing Stephen,” Brown comments quietly.
While Jon Ide and an attorney wade through the minutiae of the Huneck estate, Brown, McDermott and four other staffers are carrying on valiantly at Dog Mountain. In fact, if you didn’t know the Hunecks’ story — or see their photo in the chapel — you might not guess that anything was amiss. There are certainly no weeds growing over the dirt visitor parking lot, and Brown confirms that the past few months have been good for the chapel. “We do well in the summertime,” she says. “We can pay the bills.” At the Summer Dog Party the first weekend in August, she guesses there were 200 cars — “with at least two people in each car.”
Most visitors, Brown adds, buy something in the gallery or leave a small contribution. “Those five- and 10-dollar bills add up,” Brown says, estimating that Dog Mountain may make $5000 per year in cash donations. They are not, of course, tax deductible.
Brown recalls that when Stephen Huneck died, the gallery was besieged with 500 orders for his work. “We made more than $200,000,” she says. “That got us through for a while.” At the time, some observers speculated that Huneck intended his death to elevate the value of his work, and thereby pull the business into the black. “I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some truth to that,” Brown admits. “Stephen was desperate toward the end of his life.”
But there is still more artwork — a lot more. “Amanda and I have had the privilege of doing inventory,” Brown says. “We probably have 6000 signed woodcuts, some titles that people don’t even know about. Some of the originals are just breathtaking.”
The gallery is filled with Huneck’s carved-wood and cast animal sculptures — dogs dominate, but there are also cats, pigs, sheep, birds, even a squirrel. There are human figures, too, some of them laugh-out-loud funny, including a very long-legged man holding out a bone for a dachshund eagerly waiting below; a pair of inexplicably conjoined, life-size nuns in habits; and a totem of swimsuited females.
The gallery also holds quite a bit of furniture, some with trompe l’oeil surfaces made to look like marble; most pieces have an animal aspect, such as drawer pulls shaped like dog heads or a bench whose sides are profiles of sitting dogs. And there are dozens of prints, both limited-edition woodcut and reproduction giclée. A long table is stacked with piles of Huneck’s gaily colored Sally books, and one end of the gallery holds racks of Dog Mountain T-shirts, caps and various tchotchkes.
Brown notes with some surprise that Huneck’s larger pieces don’t sell well — perhaps the economic downturn is still a factor. Then again, none of the furniture or larger sculptures is available online. These can’t be offered at discounted prices, Brown says, because every piece is one of a kind. After Huneck died, his caster was laid off — though, in theory, the cast pieces could someday be made again in the barn, just downhill from the chapel, where packing and shipping still take place.
Orders do come in for prints and ephemeral items such as doormats, tote bags and calendars. In addition, McDermott continues to create new books, using images from the enormous archive Stephen Huneck left behind. She’s permitted to do so, Ide explains, because “she’s doing it on behalf of the Stephen Huneck Gallery, Inc. All images are copyrighted.” Some titles are available as e-books (for Barnes & Noble’s Nook); Sally Goes to Heaven is forthcoming in hard copy in spring 2014. McDermott can also reproduce Huneck’s giclée prints — each with an embedded Stephen Huneck signature, Brown notes.
McDermott is using social media to help build a Dog Mountain community of friends, too: She created a virtual Dog Chapel on Facebook just a month ago, and it has already garnered more than a thousand “likes.”
It’s been tough tackling decisions that were formerly made mostly by Stephen, and then by Gwen, McDermott admits. Now big and small choices fall on the new team’s shoulders. Should they hire a penitentiary paint crew because they don’t have 10 grand for a professional one? Should they order brochures to take to an important dog show in Maryland, or save that money for something more crucial?
“We’ve got to figure it out,” McDermott says.
The Vermont team agrees with Ide that upgrading the gallery’s website before the holiday shopping season is an urgent priority. To cut expenses, the gallery and chapel will have reduced visitor hours beginning this week. “We had a very good summer financially, but winters can be hard, when the tourists drop off,” Ide says.
But before the snow flies, Dog Mountain will host one more Dog Party — on October 12, four days after what would have been Stephen Huneck’s 65th birthday. Dogs are welcome to bring their humans.
Ide is not likely to attend; he laments that the biggest challenge of managing Dog Mountain is being so far away. “But everybody has stepped up and has done great things,” he says. Ide likens his working relationship with McDermott and Brown to being in a band, “where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts … This all would have been pretty much a train wreck without them,” he says.
Saving Dog Mountain “is the last thing I can do for my little sister,” Ide adds. “I want to make sure it gets done right, so Stephen and Gwen’s legacy lives on, because this was their life’s work.”
Julia Shipley and Ken Picard contributed additional reporting for this story.
Dog Mountain will host a Fall Dog Party on Saturday, October 12, noon to 4 p.m. at 143 Parks Road in St. Johnsbury. Free admission. $1 hot dogs, or contribute a food item and get your hot dogs for free. dogmt.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Wanted: More Best Friends"