My one-year anniversary of living in New York was on August 15. To celebrate that achievement, I went on an adventure to new places with Patty and Eszter. And I mean achievement, because I would be lying if I said living here was easy, and that there weren’t times when I thought I should just get a cab to the airport. But now it has been over a year and I’m employed, have a great apartment, have many wonderful friends, and am planning on staying for at least another year. I can’t believe all the awesome things I got to do in my first year and am looking forward to whatever the next year holds. I think I started it out right with quite the adventure. In fact, it was such an adventure that I am going to break it into three posts.
We first took the train up to the Bronx. Or about four trains, I should say. I really hope no one has to regularly commute from south Brooklyn to north Bronx, because that is not an easy transit journey. We finally took the 4 train all the way to the last stop in Woodlawn. It was a nice ride because it’s an elevated line and, since it was my first visit to The Bronx, I got to see some of it from the windows.
It was a very short walk from the Woodlawn Station to Woodlawn Cemetery, which is full of beautiful and massive mausoleums decorated with amazing sculptures and Tiffany stained glass. Like Green-Wood Cemetery in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, Woodlawn was designed as a rural cemetery with winding paths through hills covered in trees, meant to be a park as much as a burial ground. Woodlawn opened in 1863 and has about 300,000 interments on its 300 acres, so a little smaller than Green-Wood, but much less crowded.
The artistry that went into all the mausoleums was really amazing (even if the best epitaph went to the less sightly HEY grave above). These tombs held the families of a lot of recognizable names, like La Guardia, Julliard, Woolworth, Pulitzer, Macy, and Straus. I read that the Harbeck Mausoleum actually has its own pipe organ and the Belmont Mausoleum is a replica of a chapel designed by Leonardo da Vinci that I visited in Amboise, France.
The Woolworth Mausoleum was built like an Egyptian tomb, with guarding claw-handed sphinxes and a metal door featuring Osiris. It was designed by John Russell Pope, who was the architect for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.
Every path we took was lined with huge Roman temples, ornate columns and metal doors, and silence. We saw only a few other wandering visitors. Those who complain of not having any peace in New York City just need to visit its cemeteries. The location of Woodlawn was actually selected to be close to Manhattan and convenient for family burials, yet removed enough to be a serene oasis.
Many of the tombs have beautiful stained glass, some of which we could glimpse through the doors. Some of it was done by Tiffany Studios, although without any guide, we just had to guess at which ones.
It was a slightly overcast day, so the stained glass had a nice gentle light to it (and that also meant it was actually cool outside instead of insufferably hot). Most of the windows were installed above small altars.
One oddly had a taxidermy bird under a bell jar. I can only speculate why it was there. A deceased pet? The grave of an ornithologist? Woodlawn Cemetery is a haven for living birds, with over 120 species spotted on its grounds. I spotted some songbirds in the trees and was able to hear others as we walked around.
There also was this beautiful door with panels depicting the different seasons (I assume), this one showing an evergreen tree with fluttering metal birds. Among its many growing trees, Woodlawn has five of New York’s “Great Trees,” which are trees selected for preservation due to their “unusual size, species, form, or historical association.”
We did see this stone tree, with its branches cut off and names carved into the stubs. There were log-shaped gravestones sitting around it. Like the family tree has been hacked off into firewood. One of the more unsettling graves I’ve seen in a long time.
This rustic grave had some interesting stick letters with a high level of drama.
There are 20 miles of trails in Woodlawn, so we didn’t make it down them all, but we covered a lot of ground. Luckily, there are free maps at the entrance so we were able to not get lost. There was also a dotted line painted on the road that went down the center of the cemetery, sort of like a line through a tunnel underground to keep from being lost forever to the netherworld.
Which might be possible with this ominous-looking, fork-tailed statue. Further investigation showed it was actually the tip of an anchor, but still it’s a little eerie to see that up among the branches of a tree.
I was most excited to visit Herman Melville’s grave (author of Moby-Dick). Melville is said to have designed his own grave, which is decorated with a blank scroll. Why he chose that is something of a mystery, perhaps a cynical comment on the slow reception of his writing or a reflection of the tragedy that haunted the end of his life.
Notes are left under stones and shells on top of his grave (I also left a note). One said: “Herman, thanks for making such an inspiring novel.” Another had a drawing of a whale.
From Woodlawn Cemetery, we walked to the Van Cortlandt House, also in The Bronx. That post will be coming soon!