What is the oldest standing structure in Milwaukee County?
The Lowell Damon House? The Kilbourntown House? The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist?
Would you believe it if we told you that the oldest standing structure in Milwaukee County predates these buildings by centuries?
In fact, Milwaukee’s oldest building predates Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America by 100 years.
How is this possible, you ask? Well, the building itself was constructed in Medieval Europe and was brought over to the United States stone by ancient stone much later.
The Chapelle de St. Martin de Sayssuel served the noble families of the countryside and the tiny village of Chasse in the Rhone River Valley. Like most European structures, the Chapel was not built all at once, but was modified continuously for generations, which is evident in its fusion of many popular architectural styles.
After the French Revolution and the collapse of the Ancien Régime, the Chapel, along with its records, was abandoned and left to decay.
Nearly a century later, following the decimation of World War I, a man by the name of Jacques Couëlle happened about the uninhabited church. As luck would have it, this man was a brilliant young architect and archaeologist from Aix-en-Provence. He had become famous across the continent for his restorations and renovations of classic European buildings. If any one could revive this long-forgotten treasure it was Couëlle.
Throughout the 1920s, Couëlle took meticulous notes on the Chapel’s architecture, snapping numerous photographs and jotting down detailed measurements. In 1926, Gertrude Hill Gavin, daughter of James J. Hill, the American railroad magnate, acquired the church, and Couëlle arranged for its shipment to Jericho, New York. The Chapel was dismantled piece by piece, including the tomb of Chevalier de Sautereau, a former Chatelain of Chasse and a famous French knight.
It was shipped to the United States in 1927 and placed under the care of architect John Russell Pope, who would lead the reconstruction process. Two important artifacts were added to the Chapel during this phase – the early Gothic alter and the famous Joan of Arc Stone, which has since lent its name to the structure itself. Legend has it that Joan of Arc knelt down to kissed the stone beneath her feet. To this day, many believe this particular stone is colder than those surrounding it.
These were not the only changes the Chapel underwent during the reconstruction process. Mrs. Gavin commissioned Charles J. Connick to design and execute the four stained glass windows in the style and colors of the vitraux of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. The building was also attached to a small, French Renaissance chateau.
In 1962, the newly added chateau set fire and burnt to the ground, but the Chapel was miraculously left unscathed. Just two years later, the new owners, Mr. and Mrs. Marc B. Rojtman, present the ancient church to Marquette University. Once again, the St. Joan of Arc Chapel was torn down, stone by stone. The entire process to nine months to complete and reconstruction began on the University’s campus in July of 1965. And it is on the Marquette University campus that this unassuming Chapel has sat ever since.
The government of France has long since outlawed the transfer of its most historic buildings to the New World, and the Chapelle de St. Martin de Sayssuel was one of the last structures able to make it across the border before the ban. To this day, the Chapel serves as a reminder that European nations were once much more willing to cast out its history. These countries, however, now view their past as a treasure to hold on to and not something to be discard without rhyme or reason. As buildings in the United States grow older, it may be worth keeping this valuable lesson in mind, lest we repeat these very mistakes.