Architecture to Die For

“There are so many remarkable works of art in New York City, we forget they’re all around us,” says Professor Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis (GC, Liberal Studies). Her interest in the city’s classical and Egyptian architecture culminated in “Entombing Antiquity: A New Consideration of Classical and Egyptian Appropriation in the Funerary Architecture of Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City,” a chapter in her 2017 book Housing the New Romans: Architectural Reception and Classical Style in the Modern World.
 
While studies of neoclassical architecture constitute a robust body of scholarship, most of the subjects have been public-facing, from banks to important civic and judicial buildings. Here, Macaulay-Lewis saw an opportunity to apply her classical archaeology background to the study of tombs in Woodlawn Cemetery, which she calls a “trove of discovery.”
 
“We think about cemeteries as places you go out of respect or appreciation for the dead, as a way to remember or get closure,” Macaulay-Lewis says. But for 19th-century New Yorkers, cemeteries were just about the only source of green space in a developing urban sprawl. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, founded in 1838, was a popular weekend attraction for families and the city’s largest de facto public park at the time, later supplanted by the more easily accessible Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
 
Soon after it opened in December 1863, Woodlawn drew the patronage of hundreds of self-made millionaires, who commissioned opulent mausoleums designed by the era’s most eminent architects. “They wanted to create ways where they could live forever,” Macaulay-Lewis says. Classical and Egyptian styles were in vogue among the intelligentsia, signaling “cultural authority and prestige” and attesting to their economic, social, political, or artistic achievements. For their final resting places, Gilded Age magnates “reinterpreted antiquity’s diverse architectural traditions” to serve as a permanent reminder of their social standing.
 
One was Jules Bache, an art-loving banker and philanthropist who built his tomb nearly 30 years before he died. Inspired by his travels to Egypt, the structure was modeled on the Kiosk of Trajan at Philae, with great care taken to accurately replicate tiny details. Bache’s tomb also boasted stained glass windows with Egyptian motifs, sarcophagi, and even landscaping inspired by the plants of the Nile River.
 
Jay Gould, the railroad magnate and financier, bought a plot on the cemetery’s highest point, allowing it to “visually [dominate] the surrounding tombs and landscape.” Most elements of his tomb are Greek in style — one clear influence is the Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis — but other details, such as naturalistic landscaping, are “less overtly classical” and borrow from other historical motifs.
 
Just a 10-minute walk from the Woodlawn stop on the 4 train, the cemetery is still open to the public daily. And, if you happen to have $3.5 million, you can even purchase the former mausoleum of William Bateman Leeds, the "Tin Plate King,” which has been for sale since 2009.

Submitted on: MAY 26, 2018

Category: Art History | Faculty | Faculty News | General GC News