A Kind of Blue: A Walk Through Woodlawn Among the Blue Hydrangeas

Certain species of hydrangea feature opulent and puffy flowerheads, some in pink and some in blue, depending on the pH of the soil, but the ones in the blue-violet spectrum, seen in many city gardens in the summertime, look uncommonly unreal and ethereal. In context, the blue hydrangea that dot the eternal city of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx seem to assume a celestial appearance under the varied canopy of a thousand different trees, ice blue floral memorials for New Yorkers alive to memory. Describing the exact shade of these flowers goes beyond my descriptive abilities and understanding, but it is a kind of blue, a color more common in landscape paintings than in real life. 

King's handbook of New York city, published in 1892, notes that the then-modern Woodlawn Cemetery "has become the fashionable burial-place of New York millionaire families," surpassing "every other place of burial in the country in the number, the beauty and the value of these imposing houses of the dead." (p. 473) One such millionaire, industrialist Jay Gould, who commissioned the first great mausoleum - a stunning classical temple of Parthenon proportions, may have started the trend. More than a hundred tombs of Classical, French Gothic and Egyptian styles eventually gathered around these pastoral streets.

Seeing the gorgeous old trees, the tombs in every style popular with the Beaux-Arts, and walking the winding avenues with suburban-sounding names like Laurel, Wintergreen, Hawthorne, Butternut, and Knollwood feels like visiting a wealthy neighborhood but with small temples instead of stately mansions. While peering through the front doors or windows of the houses, the inclination is to remain quiet, as the residents are asleep. Out beyond the wealthy districts of Woodlawn, conventional notions of the more crowded cemetery begin to appear - some in clusters on a hill or sprawled on the edges near the walls and gates. In other words, the cemetery mirrors the social structure and geographic arrangement of the city's history. Yet, the overall feeling is that of a city slightly shifted into another dimension, not necessarily a heavenly one but perhaps an ideal Roman city, something like the landscapes depicted in Thomas Cole's paintings in the series The Course of Empire. (Wikipedia entry).

A later New York guidebook, Rider's New York city and vicinity of 1916, includes an extensive walking guide to this great cemetery in the Bronx, including the most notable Greek temple crypts, the locations of illustrious notables such as Admiral Farragut, publisher Charles Scribner, NYU chemistry professor John Christopher Draper, the locations of several gentlemen known in 1916 but unfamiliar to us now, the impressive monuments designed by McKim, Mead & White and other renowned architects, but Rider's description contains no mention of the a writer of seafaring tales (as the New York Times describes the stories in a short obit on September 29, 1891) by the name of Herman Melville (1819-1891). The latter's grave, in the south section of the ethereal city, in contrast to the small temples of the city's illuminati, is marked by a more humble tombstone bearing a cryptic image of a scrolling blank piece of paper. According to Museum Planet's online slideshow of the cemetery, Melville may have designed his own grave. The narrator says, "It may have been in reaction to the bitterness over which his greatest novel, Moby Dick, was received."

While visiting Woodlawn this past week with a friend, we realized after an hour or so that the cemetery was so vast that we could not see everyone we wanted, including my favorite writer of sea adventures. After entering through the gate nearest the Woodlawn station at the end of the 4 train, we stepped into the visitor center and picked up the free map that notes the location of gravesides, tombs, and mausoleums. Who of note is here? Finding a place on the front steps of a tomb, we make notes - Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, William 'Bat" Masterson, Robert Moses, Victor Herbert, Antoinette Perry (for whom the Tony Awards are named), Gail Borden (the inventor of condensed milk), cartoonist Thomas Nast, artist Joseph Stella, reporter Nellie Bly, Joseph Pulitzer, Augustus Juilliard, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for starters.

View Directions to Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx in a larger map

Miles Davis (1926-1991) is here, or rather "Sir Miles Davis," as the carved name in cursive script on the monument notes, at the tapered intersection of Heather and Knollwood Avenues. A plan developed during the time of the Harlem Renaissance to bury the jazz greats of the New York City in Woodlawn. And so Miles is in the neighborhood with Duke Ellington, Celia Cruz, Lionel Hampton, W. C. Handy, Sonny Greer, Cootie Williams, Max Roach, and many others. If not a leap of faith, then surely it is only a stretch of the imagination to hear the echoes of a great heavenly host of music in this celestial city.

Additional notes: The trip on the subway from Union Station to Woodlawn takes approximately 40-45 minutes. The gates close before 5 p.m., so allow ample time to visit.

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