Figure 1. Harrah mausoleum. West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA. Photo: author.

This simple cross-gabled chapel with gothic gew-gaws on it houses the mortal remains of Charles Jefferson Harrah and his wife Anna Margaret. Born in Philadelphia in 1817, he died there in 1890; she was born in London in 1820 and died in Philadelphia in 1885. That was prime time for gew-gaws. After having made a fortune in Brazil in the mid-19th century, the Harrahs retired to Philadelphia and were buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.

This mausoleum is quite ambitious, sitting on Everglades 1 plot in the cemetery, a very large round surrounded by a street and therefore emphatically cut off from the surrounding ragamuffin dead. I was quite disappointed that the door of the mausoleum was nearly shut to peekers like me. However, there was just enough space for me to insanely squeeze my iPhone into a slight opening in order to discover and (luckily) photograph the two wonderful funerary portraits within. So please forgive the mediocre photography.

Light falling in the interior shows there is a stained glass window on the rear wall. Below that appears to be a mass which holds the coffins of the two inhabitants. I only saw the edge of that. But recessed into the wall to either side of and above this mass are two niches furnished with plinths and sized for portrait busts. We have an intentional display of portraits, therefore, somewhat similar to the situation in John Bowman’s 1881 Laurel Glen mausoleum in Cuttingsville, VT. In fact, Rachel Wolgemuth, in the volume West Laurel Hill (see bibliography below), states that Harrah bought the plot in 1881 and specified, among other things, that he be allowed to supervise construction. Put another way, everything about this mausoleum was in accordance with his wishes.

I cannot say whether the Harrah busts were created for this tomb, or were repurposed from a domestic setting to the tomb when the latter was built. At the very least I think we can conclude that the two were carved at the same time by the same hand, or by two hands from the same workshop. The close similarity in the dimensions, the amount of the body included in the bust, the style of the carving, and the shape and height of the bust feet all suggest this.

Were they created to fill the niches, to which they are rather precisely adapted in size? I suspect so. Harrah doubtlessly built the mausoleum between 1881 and 1890, since we know he supervised construction. A likely starting point was when his wife died in 1885. I therefore think that he had the busts created from photographs in this time, and had niches created in the mausoleum of dimensions to fit the planned busts.

Reading from left to right, let’s start with Anna Margaret (figure 2). The bust extends to nearly the diaphragm. The corpulent face is visually counterbalanced (and made to seem thinner) by the mass of the wrap that swoops from shoulder to shoulder exposing the neckline of the figure’s dress. The broad swaths of cloth remind me of a toga, although the cloth is given folds that betray a thick and heavy fabric. It has no seams or patterns carved into it, so I think it is a prop to give the massing the sculptor wanted rather than a real piece of late-19th century clothing.

The face of the figure is elongated oval, I think. the chin boss, ears, and nose are prominent: typical signs of age. The eyes are about half closed in a look of intent interest. There is a pouch under the eye I can see, and the eyebrows and forehead are not contracted. Naso-labial forlds and some texturing of the jowls to indicate fat also mark age, as does the falling second chin. The mouth is lightly closed, with a long upper lip and pronounced philtrum. Below the second chin the neck is smooth, as is the small part of the upper chest visible above the neckline of the dress.

The hair is very long but has been gathered in four masses into long locks that have been braided, pulled back, and rolled into a bun. An attempt to indicate strands of hair has been made in the four masses pulled back from the forehead. Such a hairdo implies free time and servants, of course.

The figure’s dress pops up just a little above the top swoop of the cover, and a strap can be seen over the shoulder. The front neckline has been energized with a series of ruffles. The figure also wears a pendant on a cloth band which is too loose to be called a choker. I cannot distinguish the nature of the pendant. Finally, the gaze of the figure appears to be direct and aimed at the bust of Charles Jefferson across the room (figure 3).

The bust, like that of Anna Margaret, is generously massed and extends down to almost the bottom of the sternum. In this case, the figure is clearly wearing period clothing, the mass of which balances the figure’s large mass of beard. The nose is prominent, as are the earlobes, signs of age. There are pouches under the eyes, and the texturing of the forehead gives the figure a further sign of age. There are crow’s feet, and a fold right between the eyebrows. The figure has the eyes slightly closed in an intent gaze straight ahead: it looks at the other figure reciprocally. This strikes me as being another piece of evidence that the two busts were purpose-built for this architectural scheme— contrary to what I believe I see here, busts often have their gazes slightly averted.

The hair recedes from the forehead and at the temple. It has been textured most strongly in those areas visible from a frontal view: over the forehead, at the temples. The rest of the hair is summarily sketched in. The beard is enormous and shaggy, with a floppy mustache above. In looking at the photograph of him in the West Laurel Hill volume, I think that the sculpted beard is rather larger than life and meant to add imposing weight to the head.

The figure wears a shirt with a small upturned and out-folded tip collar. It’s notional softness is revealed by the treatment of the cloth around the buttons. There is a bow tie barely visible beneath the beard.

Over the shirt is a vest with a lapel; no buttons can be seen on it. Over the vest is a thick coat with gentle folds. Seams can be made out and just a hint of pick-stitching. In the buttonhole of the lapel is a boutonniere: ribbon, small pair of flowers, or something else, I cannot say.

So Anna Margaret and Charles Jefferson stare at each other through eternity here, in life-sized busts in their tomb. It would not surprise me at all if it could be shown that Harrah was influenced by Bowman at Laurel Glen, though that is pure speculation. Laurel Glen was immensely famous. I do think that the evidence points to these busts being bespoke creations for this tomb’s special architectural arrangement, even if, as I stated above, I cannot state it as a fact.

In any event, the Harrah mausoleum is a landmark example of a mausoleum featuring programmatic display of portraits of the deceased in the mode desired and planned by the commissioner.

Bibliographical note.
Wolgemuth, R. West Laurel Hill. A Visual Walk Through A Historic American Cemetery, edited by H. Mensing (2008: West Laurel Hill Company, Bala Cynwyd, PA.)

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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