Monday, March 21, 2011


Suppose I told you about a marvelous outdoor museum of architecture with full-scale examples of every major building style of the past hundred years? And suppose I told you it’s in a beautiful park-like setting that’s great for picnicking, and that there’s no admission fee, and that thousands of people can be found there every day of the year?

Would it matter to you if just about all of those people were dead?

If so, proceed to the Wall Street Journal. Otherwise, read on.

Cemeteries contain some of the most splendid--and overlooked--collections of architecture to be found anywhere. And heaven knows, there are plenty of them around. Every metropolitan area has some venerable and important cemeteries nearby. Near my own home outside San Francisco, for example, is Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, laid out, as it were, by the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame. Here, a series of hillside mausoleums known as Millionaire’s Row boast the last architectural efforts made on behalf of Charles Crocker of transcontinental railroad fame, F. M. “Borax” Smith, chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli, and numerous other 19th-century high rollers.  Just down the street is a 1926-vintage columbarium designed by architect Julia Morgan, of Hearst Castle fame.  

The caliber of  structures in this relatively obscure cemetery should give you some inkling of the architectural jewels you’re likely to come across in your own town.  The crypts, monuments, mausoleums, and other structures found in large cemeteries nationwide represent a microcosm of American architectural fashions, including not only the expected Gothic Revival, but also Egyptian and Greek Revival, Romanesque (Richardsonian and otherwise), Victorian, Craftsman, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modern. Here, cheek by jowl, you’ll find pyramids, obelisks, temples, domes, and cathedrals, as well as a more than a few architectural creations that defy description.  Since the main purpose of all these designs is simply to look impressive, they’re about as close to pure architecture as anything you’re likely to encounter.  

Should you decide to take a Sunday drive to your local cemetery/architecture museum, here’s some basic terminology:
A crypt is a chamber for storing bodies, while a mausoleum is a large tomb containing crypts and entered through a doorway. A vault is an underground tomb, or a tomb tunneled into the side of a hill, though it can also refer to a mausoleum whose decoration is limited to the facade only.  A columbarium is a building containing niches for the display of cremated remains. The last is a fairly recent development in funerary architecture, since the practice of cremation did not gain acceptance in America until the late 19th century.     

One highly unusual thing about cemetery structures is that, since their occupants aren’t too concerned about planning for the future, they’re practically never remodeled or modernized. Standing row upon row, sheathed in slabs of marble and granite, they stand essentially as they did on the day they were built.  

And despite the thousands of people who occupy these miniature cities of stone, crowds are not a problem. If you love old buildings but can’t stand the hustle and bustle of the usual tourist traps, this is the place for you. Temporarily, I mean.

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