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From The Editors: Cryptic Comments

Larry Bean

While you may have only one chance to make a first impression, it is also true, writes Douglas Keister, that you have but a single opportunity to create a last impression. Keister is the author and photographer of Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography (Gibbs Smith, 2004) and Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity (Facts on File, 1997). Both books explore the architecture and art of American cemeteries’ mausoleums and other final abodes, and thus they represent tours of ultimate homes of a type wholly different from—though no less intriguing than—the one that begins on page 87 of this issue.

Highlights of Keister’s books include edifices constructed during what he describes as this country’s golden age of mausoleums, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when America’s tycoons, like latter-day pharaohs, commissioned for themselves and their families elaborate structures that would house their remains. In some instances, the American mausoleums’ references to the pharaohs’ tombs are not subtle. The Stanford mausoleum, built from granite cut and carved in Vermont and then shipped by railroad to Palo Alto, Calif., where it was assembled in 1888, features a pair of sphinxes standing sentry at the entrance. At the Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, N.Y., the Longstreet mausoleum, built by clothing merchant Cornelius Tyler Longstreet in the late 1800s, is a pyramid. Like the pharaohs’ tombs, Longstreet’s once contained elaborate furnishings, including a Persian rug, but repeated acts of vandalism forced the cemetery’s stewards to permanently seal the building.

In 1928, toward the end of this era of funerary opulence, Frank Lloyd Wright designed what would become known as the Blue-Sky Mausoleum for Darwin Martin, a Buffalo, N.Y., millionaire. The mausoleum was to be erected at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. It would be an open-air structure (hence the name) comprising 12 broad granite terraces, each containing two crypts, that gradually ascended to a single monolith. “There is a nice symbolism in the stepping terraces, it seems,” Wright wrote in a note to Martin.

However, shortly after Wright presented Martin with the plans, the stock market crashed and the Depression began. Martin thought it best, then, to hold on to his money, and so he postponed construction of the mausoleum, and it remained unbuilt when he died in 1935.

Forest Lawn, a not-for-profit establishment, recently resurrected Wright’s plan, constructed the Blue-Sky Mausoleum, and is marketing the crypts in the manner that a real estate development firm would sell any luxury property designed by a famous architect. The cemetery refers to Blue-Sky’s 24 crypts as “condominiums” in the “ultimate designer home.” Much of the proceeds from the sales of the crypts will go toward maintaining the 157-year-old cemetery’s structures and grounds.

Other cemeteries around the country have built or are building similarly communal mausoleums with such luxuries as a 35-foot bell tower that can play more than 200 hymns and songs, atriums with gardens and trees, and chandeliers hanging throughout the interior. However, note the folks at Forest Lawn, Blue-Sky will remain more exclusive than any of those facilities because it was designed by a legendary architect and because it will house so few occupants.

Although prudence prevented Darwin Martin from having Blue-Sky built, as Keister notes in Stories in Stone, John Davis of Hiawatha, Kan., was not deterred by the Depression. When his wife of 50 years, Sarah, died in 1930, he spent the next seven years and nearly all of his wealth and possessions assembling a memorial to her in the town’s Mount Hope Cemetery. The structure features a granite canopy under which stand (or sit) 11 pairs of statues depicting the couple at various stages of their lives. It has been estimated that Davis spent from $200,000 to $500,000 on the memorial. Some say he did so out of a sense of guilt for having mistreated his wife throughout their marriage. Others say he was intent on spending all of his money before he died to prevent her relatives from ever claiming any of it. Regardless of his motivation, Davis certainly made a lasting impression with his tribute to Sarah; every year, thousands of visitors make their way to the cemetery to view his creation.

In 1937, the year he finished the memorial, doctors told Davis, then 82, that he was fatally ill and had only six months to live. Upon hearing this prognosis, Davis gave away what money he had left, said to be about $55,000. Alas, the doctors were wrong; he lived another 10 years and died penniless. During the last years of his life, Davis’ ultimate home, his final residence, was the Brown County Hillcrest Home, otherwise known as the poorhouse.

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Photo by Nigel YoungFoster + Partners
Photo by Mike Van Tassell