Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Walking Distance and Time in Manhattan

(revised 2017) How long does it take to walk from Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to well-known destinations in Manhattan? What are the best walking routes ? What if I don't want to see anything in particular but just want to walk around? In addition to the thousands of working commuters from the surrounding area, especially from New Jersey and Long Island who arrive at Penn Station via New Jersey Transit or the Long Island Rail Road, many people arrive at the station just to spend time in The City. Some have questions. Furthermore, a sporting event may have brought you to Madison Square Garden (above Penn Station), and you want to check out what the city offers near the event. This post if for you.  The map below should help you measure walking distances and times from the station to well-known destinations in Manhattan - Bryant Park , the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Empire State Building , Times Square , Rockefeller Center , Washington Square Park , the High Line

14 Useful Mobile Apps for Walking New York City

Texting and walking at the same time is wrong. Talking on the phone while strolling down the street is wrong. Leaving the sidewalk to stop and consult the information on a cellphone, preferably while alone, is OK. What's on Walking Off the Big Apple's iPhone: A List Walkmeter GPS Walking Stopwatch for Fitness and Weight Loss . While out walking, Walkmeter tracks routes, time, speed, and elevation. This is an excellent app for recording improvised or impromptu strolls, especially with many unplanned detours. The GPS function maps out the actual route. The app keeps a running tally of calories burned while walking, useful for weight loss goals. Another welcome feature is the ability to switch over to other modes of activity, including cycling. An indispensable app for city walkers. $4.99  New York City Compass , designed by Francesco Bertelli, is an elegant compass calibrated for Manhattan, with indications for Uptown, East Side, Downtown, and West Side. While facing a cert

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

The High Line and Chelsea Market: A Good Pairing for a Walk

(revised 2017) The advent of spring, with its signs of growth and rebirth, is apparent both on the High Line , where volunteers are cutting away the old growth to reveal fresh blooms, and inside the Chelsea Market, where new tenants are revitalizing the space. A walk to take in both can become an exploration of bounty and surprise, a sensual walk of adventure and sustenance. A good pairing for a walk: The High Line and Chelsea Market Walking the High Line for a round trip from Gansevoort to W. 30th and then back again adds up to a healthy 2-mile walk. Regular walkers of the elevated park look for an excuse to go there. Especially delightful is showing off the park, a model of its kind, to visitors from out of town. A stroll through Chelsea Market. Time check. If you haven't stopped into Chelsea Market lately, you may want to take a detour from the High Line at the stairs on W. 16th St. and walk through the market for a quick assessment or a sampling. Among the sampli

Visiting New York on a Monday

Mondays are OK. Let's have a look at some of the museums open Mondays - • American Museum of Natural History • Jewish Museum • Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) • National Museum of the American Indian • Neue Galerie • Guggenheim Museum • South Street Seaport Museum Any of these museums could be paired with a nearby restaurant or bar, making a complete full afternoon or day in New York. Monday is especially good for a museum visit, because the crowds tend to be thinner, and restaurants, too, tend to be less busy than on a weekend. A fun museum and bistro walk on the Upper West Side would be a combination of the American Museum of Natural History and the nearby Cafe Lalo on W. 83rd St. I also would suggest a pairing of the Neue Galerie with a nearby cafe, but the two cafes inside the musuem are so good, why go anywhere else? Image above: The Guggenheim on left and Beaux-Arts townhouse on right. View from E. 88th St. by Walking Off the Big Apple.

An Autumn Walk in Upper Manhattan: From The Cloisters to Audubon Park

With the arrival of cool autumn temperatures, a trek to upper Manhattan is in order, specifically a vigorous hike around Fort Tryon Park followed by a meditative walk in The Cloisters. That will get you going. It's lofty up here, away from the secular masses and their petty bourgeois pursuits and their traffic fumes and discordant notes. The terrain is literally higher, elevation-wise, and the combination of a hike through a heather garden and sounds of Gregorian chants wafting through the museum's gift shop can shift the mortal soul into a higher state of being. Plus the views of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge are drop dead gorgeous. The George Washington Bridge as seen through the Heather Garden at Fort Tryon Park Getting here: Take the A train up to 190th Street and either wait for a bus to pick you up and drop you off at the front of The Cloisters, or walk through Fort Tryon Park and up to the museum. The park's Heather Garden is beautiful this t