Woodlawn Cemetary – New York’s Most Unusual Museum

Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

woodlawn_cemetaryNew York’s most unusual museum is the not The Metropolitan Museum of Art, nor the American Museum of National History, nor The Guggenheim. It’s not even located in the borough of Manhattan. It’s spread out amongst 400 lush acres in the Bronx. According to the New York Times, New York’s most unusual museum is Woodlawn Cemetery.

Woodlawn Cemetery was established in 1863 by a group of concerned businessmen who wanted to create an eternal resting place that was easily reachable from Manhattan. Over 300,000 people are buried there from scientists to statesmen, from explorers to educators, and from dancers to debutantes. The tombstones read more like pages from a history book as the cemetery is home to some of our country’s most influential citizens. They include America’s first investigative reporter Nellie Bly; suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton; textile mogul Augustus Juilliard who started the Juilliard School; entrepreneur Roland H. Macy who opened the superstore; composer Irving Berlin; sculptor and founder of the Whitney Museum, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whiney; and jazz musicians Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Max Roach among many others.

In fact, there are so many jazz musicians entombed along the hillside known as “Jazz Corner” that every April Woodlawn hosts a series of programs and performances that pay homage to these musical masters and their contribution to our culture. It is not as odd as it seems for so many prolific musicians to be buried in the same location. New York has always attracted musicians with the promise of fame and fortune; and during the birth of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, it was no different. So when it came time for the families of these legendary greats to bury their dead, Woodlawn was a natural choice, especially after a subway stop was added making it accessible from all the boroughs.

Woodlawn is incomparable in its serene beauty and offers a respite from the bustling metropolis that surrounds it. It feels more like a park than a bone yard with rolling hills, waterfalls, lakes, elaborate gardens, and a collection of 3,500 large canopy and ornamental trees. Many New Yorkers awaken early to participate in bird watching expeditions, while others prefer to stroll the grounds during the afternoon hours for guided garden tours.

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John Baptiste Memorial

After the Civil War, the country began to see a “shift from the rural cemetery model to the landscape-lawn plan,” as cited in Woodlawn’s application for the National Register of Historic Places. Prominent landscape architects such as the Olmsted Brothers whose projects include many of our national parks; and Beatrix Farrand who is credited with the White House Rose Garden among others, contributed their talents to several lots creating “interesting and complex site designs and memorial gardens.”

Along with an awakening of non-traditional ways in which cemeteries could be perceived, came the introduction of funerary art. Wealthy New Yorkers commissioned prominent architects and artists to construct their lavish and lasting memorials. The efforts of their genius encompass over 1300 mausoleums, monuments, metalwork, stained glass windows, and fine art sculptures. The work of giants such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, John Merven Carrère, and Thomas Hastings whose firm also designed the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue; and sculptor Daniel Chester French, who crafted the 170-ton statue of a seated Abraham for the Lincoln Memorial, are sprinkled throughout.

“Woodlawn’s private lots and their corresponding memorials represent some of the finest examples of funerary art in the nation. They constitute an exceptional example of multifaceted design, including collaborative works by architects, landscape architects, sculptors, artisans, and fabricators, many of which represent the preeminent designers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Two aspects of this collaboration are noteworthy. First, the extraordinary number of private mausolea are likely the largest and most distinctive collection in the nation. Second, the cemetery used circular lots surrounded by roads or paths, as a unique setting for the placement of many of these monuments and mausolea. The resulting composition is not only a spectacular assemblage of monuments in a verdant landscape setting, but it also represents a virtual library and study collection of attributed design and art – critically recognized in architectural, landscape, and other design journals well into the twentieth century,” as described in the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for Woodlawn Cemetery for the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service.

In 2011, Woodlawn was designated a National Historic Landmark. Every year over 100,000 people visit. Some come to commune with loved ones, while others participate in concerts, lectures, and events hosted by the Woodlawn Conservancy, a non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve and enhance the Cemetery.  Public and private tours can be arranged practically on any topic of interest because of the multitude of illustrious people buried there and the vast representation of art and horticulture. Woodlawn maintains a staff historian and a team of volunteer docents who can tailor an itinerary to fit any topic of interest.

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Duke Ellington Memorial

During Hispanic and Caribbean Heritage Month for example, visitors are directed to the resting places of those Spanish, South American, and Caribbean descendants who introduced New Yorkers to all aspects of the Latino culture such as their music, political beliefs, artwork, and businesses. Cuban born Celia Cruz, dubbed the “Queen of Salsa” is on the tour, as is David Glasgow Farragut, son of a Spanish merchant captain who had the distinction of becoming the first admiral of the U.S. Navy. His gravesite is a National Historic Landmark and part of the American Latino Heritage Trail.

During Women’s History Month, notable woman such as Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to successfully swim across the English Channel; Marie Kraus Boelte, one of the founders of the kindergarten movement in this country; and Margaret Rudkin, whose baked goods eventually became the conglomerate known as Pepperidge Farm; are remembered for their contributions.

This past September, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Herman Melville’s death (the famed author who penned the classic Moby Dick), Woodlawn Cemetery hosted a program entitled, “Celebrating Melville: Writer for the World,” that featured a lecture series by Dr. John Bryant, President of the Melville Society.

The Conservancy is also responsible for cleaning, repairing, and restoring Woodlawn’s many sculptures, mausoleums, and monuments. They have implemented a training program in conjunction with the World Monuments Fund and the International Masonry Institute to ensure the continued preservation of New York’s most unusual museum.

For more information log onto www.thewoodlawncemetery.org.

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