A recently opened exhibit at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery puts on display the University's collection of artifacts from Woodlawn Cemetery's lengthy history. “Sylvan Cemetery: Architecture, Art and Landscape at Woodlawn,” which opened Sept. 3, coincides with the 150th anniversary celebration of the cemetery.
Woodlawn's 393 acres of careful planning and design are home to more than 1,300 mausoleums, more than any other cemetery in the United States. It is the final resting place of some of the most prominent figures in New York, such as Joseph Pulitzer, Herman Melville, John Russell Pope, Duke Ellington, and families like the Whitneys and Belmonts.
Woodlawn's legacy is heavily rooted in the growth of New York City at the turn of the 20th century, and the city's expansion came with the need for increased public services.
“By the mid-19th century, you couldn't bury anybody in the city and they were moving people to the other outlying areas,” Janet Parks, Avery Library's curator of drawings and archives, said. “And this area which was far off but still on the railroad line seemed a business that was necessary and that could fit there quite well and the land was cheap.”
One of centerpieces of the exhibit is “Kneeling Angel,” a marble sculpture of a cherub praying on his knees. The piece only provides viewers with a glimpse of the work of its prolific creator, German-born sculptor Adolph Weinman, who was a frequent collaborator with architects like John Russell Pope and Carrère and Hastings. Weinman's work embellishes many mausoleums and monuments at Woodlawn, including Pope's Stewart and Leeds mausoleums.
“That was true of the other people they did mausoleum—they did your house, they did your country house, they did your office building, and then they did your final resting place,” Parks said. “The cemeteries, as well as private patronages, helped to develop these arts in the late 19th century.”
The Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library acquired the cemeteries' archives in 2006 and in 2011, the cemetery was named a historic national landmark. “One of the things that they cited was the comprehensiveness and cohesiveness of the design,” said Parks.
The exhibition also holds many drawings and designs by young architects, beautifully made during their travels abroad. Their openness to the assimilation of different types of architecture has led to eclecticism at Woodlawn. For instance, Alexander Archipenko, a Ukrainian avant-garde artist, took on a fairly modernist approach to the design of Alfred Romney's memorial, while William F. Lamb, one of the principal designers of the Empire State Building who studied architecture at Columbia and the École des beaux arts, made sketches of architectural details from the Italian cities of Padua and Vicenza.
These distinct styles became linked through Woodlawn's landscape, as rural cemeteries went out of style and the cemetery gradually developed circular lots so as to give room for circulation and to provide “circulation and to give these nice vistas and to give some sense of geography,” Parks said. “And it also made the center plots worth more.”
Much of Woodlawn's history is intimately linked with the rise of New York City as an urban center and the entered an age of glamour and extravity.
“Because these things were happening at a time when the city was becoming more urbanized, there is a kind of interesting parallel between the two, where Woodlawn can feel like a little city, but as the city was being urbanized, buildings being built, it becomes a kind of urban cemetery,” Parks said.
The exhibit will give other students an opportunity to see the art that has filled Woodlawn over the years. Among them is an exterior gate from the mausoleum of Isidor and Ida Straus—who died on the Titanic—that was designed by Samuel Yellin. Yellin collaborated on the Straus gates with James Gamble Rogers, who also designed Butler Library. The resulting piece of metalwork features a leaf motif combined with Egyptian elements.
While the Strauses are among well-known names in Woodlawn, the cemetery's variety and development over the years has made it the final resting place of many lesser-known New Yorkers,too.
“They made it convenient, they made it economically feasible for people to come there,” Parks said. “If you lived in Upper Manhattan, it was the closest place you could go to be buried.”
“Bury in the morning, and back in your office in the evening.”
“Sylvan Cemetery: Architecture, Art and Landscape at Woodlawn” runs through Nov. 1 at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, on the eighth floor of Schermerhorn Hall.
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