Wednesday, December 17, 2008

not goth, gothic

Gothic Revival is the house style of Forest Hills Cemetery; its examples and influence multiply beyond computation. The main entrance itself consists of a gate rich with arches, encrusted with crenellations and acanthus ornaments (the vestibules at either end are restrooms).
The gothic theme continues with the rest of the framing architecture, including the headquarters building with its wonderful Forsyth Chapel (today the scene of poetry readings and concerts as well as memorial services). Primarily, though, it's found throughout the grounds in the form of imposing mausoleums and memorials like those below.

(In the background above, the cemetery's gothic belltower, which was chiming "How Great Thou Art" at the time I was shooting these pictures).

The Chadwick Mausoleum, above, was designed by William Preston for the Chadwicks, a family of lead magnates. Facing Lake Hibiscus, it's one of the most picturesque edifices in the cemetery. But the gothic building that first caught my eye is the pavilion below, which stands with pines and weeping beeches near the entrance gate.

The crypt itself reaches deep into the hillside, lit by domed skylights that pop out among the pine needles. The porch is ornately tiled, and roofed in wooden vaults:

The gothic style isn't only represented by crypts. The Carney family plot below makes for a churchyard's worth of gothic stones, with Andrew Carney's maiden-in-the-spire at the center:

Nor is the gothic restricted to brahmin magnates and benefactors; simple stones abound:

...and yes, that is an anchor on the grave above. Mother was no sailor; iconologists will tell you the anchor is a symbol of constancy and surety.

A survey of the gothic wouldn't be complete without mentioning the Irish or "high" crosses found throughout the grounds, relics of the Celtic revival that combined Ruskinian medievalism with Irish nationalist aspirations. Of the numerous cruciform stones in Forest Hills, these are among the most richly figured.

Why such a madness for the gothic at the end of the nineteenth century? It was part of the Arts & Crafts reaction against the machine, of course, harkening back to an imagined utopia of guilds and craftwork, of labor in harmony with life. Arch-goth John Ruskin championed the gothic because he thought it not only the product of harmonious labor, but an exercise in formal harmony as well—harmony with Nature, resonance with the Creator's ultimate plans. He especially celebrated the formal flexibility of the gothic—the way a pillar could uncurl itself into a staircase, or contract itself into a spire, thickening to bear weight and throwing out buttresses like the knees of great trees. An unintentionally Darwinian manner of seeing architecture, in a way—forms subtending forms in ceaseless cycles of change. Whether as theology or biology, it puts you in your place.

Ruskin would have choked at the profusion of styles in the Forest Hills Cemetery of today—not the archaic resonance of gothic plainchant reverberating on stone, but a polyphonic chorus of intertwining strains from the neoclassical to the neopuritanical, with hints of chinoiserie, modernity, and 21st-century sentimental evangelism. A tangle of forms—which is very gothic, actually.

Friday, December 12, 2008

children under glass

Three days of warm rain erased all trace of winter in the cemetery; Monday's fringe of snow and rime is washed away. I run along the sluicing paths with the jays scolding me as if I were responsible for the hard rain that disarranged the brambles. A strange hint of the holiday season appears, though, in the wreath-bearing caissons pulled by the groundskeeper's Jeeps.

It's a season for children, and the December rain makes the graves of the young more forlorn. There are many, of course, a few marked with sculptures like this cherub (whose picture I took when the snow still lay about):

More remarkable is the "Boy in the Boat"—the grave of Louis Mieusset (1881–1886), a white marble sculpture of a boy in a wave-tossed dinghy, encased in an elegant vitrine:

I've run by Louis many times, always marveling at the improbable glass and the snow-white stone. Without the vitrine, of course, the marble would quickly change color as algae and lichens colonize its porous surface. Safe in his little aquarium, the paper-white boy retains his pure, virginal glow.

When I looked up the story of Louis, I learned that his was not the only child sculpture under glass at Forest Hills. On Lobelia Path not far from Lake Hibiscus stands Grace Sherwood Allen (1876–1880), who predeceased Louis Mieusset, in a simple little booth. Grace, too, is done in innocent white marble (perhaps her grave inspired Louis's). But by the time I stopped to take her picture, her monument and its protective sleeve of glass were clad in green steel to protect from the coming storms.

I'll pay Grace another visit in the Spring. In the meantime, Louis, too, has received his winter covering, the white boat hidden in its dark winter harbor.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Botanical figurations

Monday's run was the coldest of the season so far, with crystalline snow filling in the spaces in the turf and treadworn slush frozen in the lees of the hills.

At this time of year I take special notice of the plant motifs of many monuments, which offer a faint vernal counterpoint to the wintry swishing of the pines. Mostly these consist of rose vines, laurels, or lilies carved in relief on the margins of the stones. While they can be chaste and simple, some are exuberant—like the Gale/Zaletskas monument, trimmed in rustic, dendriform cross and letters and an armload of lilies.

The botanical figurations that most often catch my eye, however, are the stones carved as stumps. The stump is an obvious memento mori, a simple reminder of life cut short.

Stumps, too, have their exuberant exponents. The monument below features a stump festooned with viny encrustations surmounting a pedestal.

Note the short stumpiform pillars marking the corners of the plot. As for the topmost stump, its lopped branch supports a crosspiece, making it into a cross; depending from the crosspiece is not the Christ, but a graven roll of parchment inscribed with a maternal tribute.

Viny encrustations and new growth figure on other stumps throughout Forest Hills; life— whether life everlasting or the return of Spring—will flourish. My favorite example is the stump below, with a giant lily bursting miraculously from the top.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The monumental modern

In the raw, windswept southern corner of Forest Hills, where the most recently dead lie, the stones are polished and cookie-cutter congruent in the current fashion, many with laser-cut photoreal reproductions of yearbook photos, glimmering crosses and Christs—and in one case, a chess set. In the larger, older precincts of the cemetery, however, stones and mausoleums come in a bewildering variety of styles, from the sentimental figures of the Victorian to neo-gothic arches to quiet slabs of neo-puritan slate. Rare among these are expressions of the out-and-out modern, like the art deco Lanza mausoleum below.

The Kinelly mausoleum below isn't really modern—more neoclassical by way of arts & crafts, it's in dialogue with the modern...

with a cast bronze door looks like a product of the Kelmscott Press:

Few modern monuments in Forest Hills are stones. The example below always catches my eye as I jog into the brushy western margin of the cemetery, where elegant topiary gives way to puddingstone outcrops and tall, swishing pines.

Aside from the sleek black stone and the ad-agency typography, the name it carries is striking. Is Melbourne Brindle a particularly stylish sub-breed of whippet, or perhaps a classic touring motorcar? This, it turns out, is an especially appropriate connection, as Melbourne Brindle was America's foremost automotive illustrator, with a special passion for the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Brindle died in 1995; he received an obituary in the New York Times.

An exhibition of Brindle's work appeared last year at Boston's Vose Galleries. His surreal-manque painting above illustrates the Stevens-Duryea, a motorcar built in Chicopee, Massachusetts in the twenties. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition explains that Brindle showed the car among ruins to express his nostalgia for the company, which closed its plant in 1932.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fallen trees

Among the thousands of gravemarkers at Forest Hills there are many pieces of rough and uncut stone. But the Hamilton family monument is unique, at least so far as my runs have revealed. It's made of a section of fossilized wood--a petrified log.

The mid-morning light wasn't ideal, and my photographs don't catch the rich reds, sienna browns, and milky colors of the mineralized log. But the cavities of lost limbs and striations of the grain are visible on close inspection, with living lichen in greens and yellows dotting the long-dead wood.

Petrified wood can be quite ancient. The trees of Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona date from the late Triassic--dinosaurs would have brushed among their branches. I don't know where the Hamilton family's log came from; petrified wood is found throughout the world, wherever trees have flourished from remote antiquity to the present.

The pedestal only gives the name Hamilton in raised capitals. On the ground in front, spread out like schoolchildren in a row, are small rectangles of polished red stone cut with given names.