The Columbia Gardens Cemetery here in Arlington provides an object lesson in the contrasts between a monument of the great age of American monumental art and architecture in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the current fallen state of almost every aspect of that art.
The mausoleum of Admiral George Dewey (1837-1917), once in Arlington National Cemetery, was moved the short distance to Columbia Gardens when Dewey was transferred to the National Cathedral in 1933. It’s the receiving vault now (figures 1, 3). The fine classical mausoleum falls near the end of that great monumental age; it was built by a division of the great Presbrey-Leland Studios.
On the right is the vault of the Tom family (figure 2, 4), built by a local firm quite recently. It has the same orientation as the Dewey one, it appears to consciously echo the look and style of Dewey’s, and it stands comparatively near it. Certainly each cost a small fortune in its day. The Tom family reveal good taste in seeking to erect a classical mausoleum.
Yet even a cursory glance shows something is dreadfully wrong with the Tom vault. It has to do with a living tradition of craftsmanship and cost. In 1917, labor costs were comparatively low. In addition, though machinery was coming ever more into use in the marble and granite industry, there was still a living and vital trade in cutting in the cities of the United States.
What I mean is that while the cutters used pneumatic and other mechanical drills and chisels and hammers, they relied on training, their hands, and their eyes to finish monuments. They could do one-off work, and they could repeat in stone patterns and designs of things like lettering and decorative work published in trade journals. They could incorporate subtle curves into their work.
The Tom vault exemplifies what happens when a computer guides design and cutting by automated saws and grinders. It also exemplifies the result of the high cost of labor transport, and materials.
In general, unadorned three-dimensional elements that follow rectilinear geometries—flat surfaces and right angles—are cheap to make because a machine can quickly bang these elements out. The Tom monument is in fact a study in cheap manufacture. You can easily see the rectilinear blocks out of which the building was assembled.
Where there are setbacks in the raking pediments, your can see that these are still flat surfaces and the number of complications has been kept to a minimum. Compare the curved profiles of the moldings on the Dewey number. There are at least 5 curved moldings between the top of the columns and the tip of the pediment that I can see.
See, too, the tall graceful Ionic columns in the Dewey vault (figure 5). If you look closely, those columns (not the squared-off pilasters on the ends) exhibit entasis, a swelling in the central parts of the column that counters the eye’s tendency to see the center of the shaft as pinched. It’s not even a case of the sides being tapered evenly so that the diameter at the top is less than the diameter at the bottom. It’s gradual and organic in feel.
The Tom mausoleum columns (figure 6) are like cans. You can easily see that they are perfectly straight up and down, as though they had been turned on a lathe. Effectively that’s what’s been done, allowing for the different mechanism needed for heavy stone. The bottom of the shaft and the top have simple half-round moldings that cheaply substitute for the complexities of an Ionic base and capital.
The Tom mausoleum sits on one (by the look of it) monolithic base and has a separate slab serving as a step. Each column has a thin rectilinear slab at the bottom and top imitating the base and abacus of a real column. You see: everything’s squared off and flat, including the profile of the round columns.
The Dewey vault obeys the rules of the geometry of the Ionic order: the columns are tall and slim because the façade is tall and slim. As a result, the door is much taller than a man, with a bronze transom (“Receiving Vault”) over it giving it a lofty appearance. The handles, at normal convenient height for the human grasp, are quite low on this shape. By contrast, the Tom handles are very nearly at mid-door, and the door, without transom, and without the cut stone frame of the Dewey vault, reaches directly to the ceiling of the porch. That is the worst thing about the Tom vault: it’s laughably stumpy with wonky proportions.
On top of these major elements, you can see the hand of the artisan again and again in the Dewey vault. So, for example, see how the stylobate (the slab that sits right under the columns) has been ever so slightly cut down between the columns to articulate the surface and give expression to the weight the slab bears under the columns (figure 3).
In the end, the Tom mausoleum represents the triumph of all of the economic principles of mass production: uniformity, automation, minimum of human resource costs, minimum of material, minimum of complexity, straight edges, minimal curvature. Every one of these vices leads to a deterioration in artistic quality and a building that, by the inherent rules of architecture, is effectively flying apart.
It’s hard to blame the Tom family: they’ve certainly paid a fortune, and a Dewey-quality vault would have cost hundreds of thousands. But maybe, if you’re trying to command people’s respect (the only real reason to erect a mausoleum), opt for a smaller but fascinating family monument over scrimping on a big mess.