Taphophile : Someone who is interested in funerals, gravestone art, epitaphs, and cemeteries.
I am a taphophile, a cemetery enthusiast. Most cemeteries dating from the 19th century are open-air sculpture gardens. The artwork, some produced by leading artist of their time, is stunning; the setting is peaceful. Beauty and peace combine to attract. I have visited well-known cemeteries in Europe, including Père Lachaise in Paris; Rome’s Cimitero Acattolico, also known as the Protestant Cemetery; and the National Cemetery Vysehrad in Prague. In America, some of the cemeteries I have visited have included Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx; Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery; and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, the third rural cemetery developed in the U.S.A.
With my strong interest in mind, it will not be surprising that I am very excited about an upcoming tour that I have developed and am leading at a cemetery. On Saturday, the 14th of June at 1 PM my tour at Green-Wood Cemetery will make its debut! As a preview, I offer here photos of a few sights from the tour. I hope you can join us in person for the entire tour.
Green-Wood’s entry gates, carved in Brooklyn from red sandstone, have been called by Robert A. M. Stern, dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, “the finest example of High Victorian Gothic architecture in America.” This iconic structure has been appropriated by Green-Wood for its logo. Designed by Richard Upjohn (1802-1878) the gates have been a New York City landmark since 1966, 40 years before the cemetery as a whole was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Not far from the entry gates stands the graceful mausoleum of the Stewart family; the Stewart’s eldest daughter was Isabella (1840-1924). She married John Lowell Gardner II (1837-1898) and later founded the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. This mausoleum, a small gem, is the handiwork of architect Stanford White. He hired Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design the bronze bas-relief panels of two seated angels. Although Isabella and John Gardner are buried at America’s first rural cemetery, Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass., their infant son—and only child—rests here.
The Van Ness/Parsons Pyramid was created for Albert Parsons (1847-1933), a noted pianist. He also was an Egyptologist and wrote, The New Light from the Pyramids in 1893. Egyptian Revival architecture was a popular style of memorialization during the mid-19th century. It returned to fashion in the 1920s following the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The pyramid is rich with Egyptian and Christian iconography. Mr. Parsons was covering all bases for his life in the hereafter. Over the mausoleum’s entrance are vulture wings, an Ancient Egyptian symbol for maternal care; a sphinx gazes adoringly at the Virgin Mary presenting the Christ Child; on the left Jesus, known as the Lamb of God, holds a lamb symbolizing innocence. To the left of the pyramid, another maternal figure, Pharaoh’s daughter Bityah holds Moses, whom she has just found in the bulrushes along the Nile. Also sharing space in the pyramid is Parsons’ wife Alice Schuyler Van Ness, who died in 1931; when she was born is not known.
What is Minerva, the Ancient Roman Goddess of Wisdom, the virgin daughter of Jupiter, doing at Green-Wood Cemetery? Charles Higgins (1854–1929) was the primary force pushing to place Minerva and the Altar to Liberty on Battle Hill. Higgins was born in Ireland; he came to America in 1860. While working for the magazine Scientific News as a patent solicitor, he experimented with inks in his sister’s Manhattan kitchen, where he formulated Higgins India Ink and Eternal Black Ink. In the 19th century writing ink was a valuable commodity; and his path to fortune.
Higgins was unhappy that the Battle of Brooklyn—fought in and around the land that would become Green-Wood—was not given the attention by historians that he felt it deserved. When Higgins purchased lots on Green-Wood’s Battle Hill for his family tomb, he had bigger plans in mind than a final resting place; he wanted to build a suitable monument to the Battle of Brooklyn there. To realize his dream he bought the land in front of his tomb and donated it to Green-Wood. Here Higgins built the Altar to Liberty with the nine-foot tall bronze of Minerva. In 1920 Mr. Higgins, Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, New York State Governor Al Smith, along with others attended the dedication ceremony.
Elias Howe (1819–1867) was born in Spencer, MA and died in Brooklyn. He improved upon and patented (U.S. Patent #4,750) a mechanical sewing machine. It helped revolutionize clothing manufacture. It was not taken up quickly in the U.S.A., forcing him to travel to England to drum up interest. While he was gone others, including Isaac Singer, began manufacturing sewing machines. Howe took them to court for patent infringement; he won in 1854. From then until the patent expired in 1867 all other sewing machine manufacturers had to pay Howe a royalty.
Oh! the romantically tragic story of Charlotte Canda (February 3, 1828 – February 3, 1845) indeed brings a tear to the eye. Charlotte was a debutante, returning home from her 17th birthday party in New York City. When her father’s carriage horses bolted, she was flung from her seat. She struck her head and died in her father’s arms. This monument is 17 feet tall by 17 feet long. Tucked into the High Gothic Revival niche is a likeness of Charlotte wearing the party frock she died in; her head is crowned with 17 roses.
The white Carrara monument was built at a cost of $45,000. In the 19th century, when Green-Wood visitors picnicked here, it was a very popular monument. The expense and beauty of the memorial, coupled with the story of the young girl’s death, attracted a good deal of public attention that for decades after her death, references made in the press simply to Miss Canda were understood to refer to Charlotte. Her parents too are buried here. She was their only child; and she was adopted.
William Magear (“Boss”) Tweed (1823–1878) still reigns as the epitome of civic corruption. Tweed, along with his political cronies, stole an estimated $200 million (the equivalent of $3.5 billion in today’s market) from the citizens of New York City. The project that transferred the most money from the public purse to his own was the construction of the New York County Courthouse. The New York State Legislature in 1858 budgeted $250,000 (close to $6 million today) for the construction and furnishing of the Courthouse; it wound up costing taxpayers $12 million (equal to $200 million today). More money was spent to build the Courthouse than was spent to construct the United States Capitol!
The piano manufacturing family, Steinway & Sons, built the largest mausoleum at Green-Wood. It stands 126 feet above ground with a 126-foot deep vault below. The family patriarch, Heinrich Engelhard Steinway (1797–1871), the founder of the firm, was the first to be entombed in the mausoleum. To design the gray granite structure, in 1870 the family hired architect Henry Reck, a card playing buddy of Heinrich’s son William. Mr. Reck was also playing around with William’s wife, Regina. The cost of construction was $47,292, and one marriage. William divorced his wife and moved to Paris.
This three-sided monument sits atop one of the few purposely built-up hills at Green-Wood. It marks the final resting place of Samuel Finely Breese Morse, his two brothers and the families of the three men. Although known worldwide as the man who perfected the single-wire telegraph, Morse set out in life to be a painter. He achieved some fame as such, painting portraits of presidents John Adams and James Monroe, as well as a full-length portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette during the French nobleman’s 1825 U.S. visit. He turned his attention to developing the telegraph when the public did not share his enthusiasm for what he had hoped would be his greatest work of art, The Gallery of the Louvre. The poor reception of his 1833 painting of the Parisian museum’s interior was a major disappointment for Morse. He did return from France with something that would go on to be a great success, photography. In Paris he had met Louis Daguerre, and was fascinated by the Daguerreotype process, which he learned and brought home with him.
Green-Wood’s Historic Chapel, completed in 1911, was designed by Warren and Wetmore, designers of Grand Central Terminal, the Helmsley Building, Steinway Hall, and the Yale Club. Because Green-Wood was New York City’s most prestigious cemetery, the place to be seen, even dead, it is not surprising that this duo would be chosen to build the chapel. The firm was well connected, with an added advantage, the main designer, Whitney Warren, was a Vanderbilt cousin. The Chapel is a scaled-down version of Christopher Wren’s Thomas Tower at Christ Church College, Oxford. The Chapel is used for lectures, concerts, weddings, book signings, memorial services, funerals and interment ceremonies. Although the chapel, like the cemetery, is non-denominational, the sumptuous stained glass windows, by Willet Stain Glass Company of Philadelphia, do depict Christian themes.