Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

The Past and Future of Cemeteries

1921 aeriel view of Woodlawn Cemetery. Courtesy Avery Library, Woodlawn Cemetery Records.

“I would love to have been there when they called in their architect and said, ‘There’s one more thing you need to design for us,’ ” says Susan Olsen, imagining a conversation between the Standard Oil heir Edward Harkness and the architect James Gamble Rogers. Rogers designed the buildings that Harkness donated to Yale, Harvard, and Columbia; Harkness’s Fifth Avenue mansion; and, indeed, his final resting place: a neo-Gothic burial chapel at Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. Olsen, the director of historical services at Woodlawn, adds that Harkness was not alone in wanting a mausoleum in the same style, and created with the same hands, as his lifetime milieu.

As the new exhibit “Sylvan Cemetery: Architecture, Art and Landscape at Woodlawn” demonstrates, the cemetery is an ideal place to view work by leading architects, landscape designers, and artisans in close proximity, with gardens by Beatrix Farrand, Ellen Biddle Shipman, and the Olmsted Brothers, architecture by Rogers, McKim, Mead & White, and Carrère and Hastings, tile vaults by the Guastavinos, stained glass by Tiffany Studios, and sculptures by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Established, in 1863, as a more convenient alternative to Green-Wood Cemetery (early advertisements emphasized its location as only thirty minutes from Manhattan by train, unlike the ferry journey to Brooklyn), Woodlawn Cemetery tells a story rich with railroad lore, new-money positioning, design trends, and the history of craft.