Artist Stephen Huneck welcomes all creeds and breeds to New England’s Dog Mountain

By Moira Bailey
July 13, 2009 10:20 PM

In the mid-1990s, Stephen Huneck was recovering from a serious fall that had broken his ribs and put him into a coma for a couple of months – when a canine construction project suddenly came to mind. “I had this lightning idea about building the dog chapel,” says Huneck, a 60-year-old Vermont artist whose collectors include Sandra Bullock and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A former antiques-picker, Huneck set out to build a postcard picture of a New England church – with distinctly dog-like decorative touches – atop his 175-acre farm in Saint Johnsbury. The idea was a sincere one, a place “for people to celebrate their life with their dogs,” both living and deceased. “People look at their dogs as part of their family,” says Huneck. “And dogs do have a spirit, you know?”

The chapel opened in 2000 on what’s become known as Dog Mountain, and has since become a retreat where visitors can “celebrate their life with their dogs.” Admission to the de facto “doggie Disneyland” is free for guests, whether they’re hiking the property’s trails or communing in the chapel. One of the most popular attractions at the site: walls covered with tributes to pets. “It was a surprise how many thousands of people did it,” says Huneck’s wife, Gwen, 58, adding that even a few cats and guinea pigs have stood out among the remembered canines.

Over the years, people have come to perform weddings and civil ceremonies in the space that fits about 50 – many with their dogs – on the condition that they don’t mind others wandering in. “We just let ‘em do what they want to do,” says Huneck, who considers himself “spiritual.”

Born in Ohio and raised in Massachusetts as a Catholic, he says he had “totally discarded” organized religion. But it was a heavenly figure that helped launch Huneck’s career as a full-time artist; a Madison Avenue art dealer had spotted a carving he did of an angel in the early 1980s. Still, the philosophy of Dog Mountain is “everybody’s welcome no matter what you believe in” and, Gwen Huneck tells PEOPLE Pets, a sign outside the chapel serves as a reminder of that, reading: “all creeds, all breeds, no dogmas allowed.”

The Hunecks, who run a gallery on site, also host community barbecues for visitors and their dogs, including one scheduled on Aug. 2 (where ice cream from locals and friends Ben & Jerry’s is the menu). The Hunecks currently count three dogs as part of their own family: Molly, an 11-year-old Golden Retriever; and black Labs, Daisy, 3, and Salvador Doggie, almost 2.

“I got this opportunity out of the blue to become an artist,” says Huneck, looking back. “I was able to say, ‘Well, what [do] I want to do for the rest of my life?’” The answer – which has since taken shape in books (including several starring deceased black Lab Sally), prints and a chapel– has four legs. Says Huneck, “I love dogs.”

For more information about Stephen Huneck and his work, visit his Web site.

See more dog art on PEOPLE Pets:
One Kid’s Trash Is Another Dog’s Work of Art
Artist Creates Dog Completely from Crayons!