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Entombing Antiquity: A New Consideration of the Classical Appropriation in the Private Funerary Architecture of New York City

Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis

Grant’s Tomb, the public memorial to and tomb of the great Civil War general and eighteenth president of the United States, reused many elements of classical architecture. Located in Riverside Park, the tomb’s impressive architecture and its debt to the classical world has been subject of scholarly work (Kahn 1982); however, the tombs of private individuals in New York City, whose architecture also alluded to the classical world, have been virtually ignored.

Therefore, this paper offers a new consideration of and approach to the study of private funerary architecture in New York through an exploration of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Despite its importance as a burial ground of luminaries, such as Alva Vanderbilt, Herman Melville, Miles Davis and others, Woodlawn Cemetery and its individual funerary monuments, classically-inspired or otherwise, have never been the focus of an in-depth scholarly study (e.g., Goodman 2004 is not academic in nature, and Inskeep 1998 focuses on the movement of graveyards and bodies not on the architecture of New York’s cemeteries). Using archival materials and direct study of specific monuments in Woodlawn Cemetery, I investigate these tombs from the perspective of a classical archaeologist, not as an architectural historian of nineteenth-century America, and I seek to contextualize these monuments within the rich tradition of classical reception in nineteenth century New York architecture and establish a critical framework for their study. Certain patrons, such as William C. Stewart, and architects, such as John Russell Pope, Stanford White and others, actively engaged in place-making, specifically through the appropriation and redeployment of classical architecture and classicizing motifs in many of the tombs in Woodlawn; however, no one has sought to explore the important but hitherto unasked question of why did these men requisition Greco-Roman inspired architecture, such as temples, tholos, or columns, for tombs, while others choose alternative styles that included but were not limited to neo-Egyptian and neo-Gothic architecture.

Through a consideration of the architectural forms of a select number of tombs and the archival material associated with them, this paper attempts to understand the public and private self-fashioning that individuals projected through the lens of funerary architecture. Connected to this, I hope to determine individual patrons’ and architects’ motivations for requisitioning classical forms, their knowledge of classical architecture and whether accuracy or an obvious, although possibly ill-informed, allusion to the classical ideal was more important in the erection of these elaborate funerary monuments. Thus this paper offers new insights into some of the private classically-inspired monuments of New York City and demonstrates that classical narratives and architectural forms, often reinterpreted and modified to reflect American sensibilities at a particular moment in time, appealed to many of those buried at Woodlawn in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This paper will conclude with a brief consideration of when and why classical architecture lost its potency as a model for private funerary architecture in New York City and how this was connected to larger shifts in American architecture and culture.

Session/Panel Title

Re-Creating the House of Pansa

Session/Paper Number

7.4

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