Figure 1. Fitler monument and plot curbing. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

In Laurel Hill Cemetery yesterday I revisited an old favorite, the Conarroe plot. As one passes along the street of most gilded-age cemeteries one sees any number of landscaping solutions designed to tidy up (or assert) plot boundaries such as we see in the Fitler plot (figure 1), likewise in Laurel Hill. The Fitler obelisk is arguably the grandest of the million billion trillion obelisks in that great boneyard, and the staircase/threshold is quite grand, as well. The plot sits alone in an area privileged by being circumscribed by a path.

The Fitler curbing and threshold is typical, however, in that it has subsided and is all tilty. Still, you can see that the name of the principal deceased is carved on a bevel of the threshold, and this threshold was axially aligned with the center of the principal monument, the name of the deceased being echoed directly above that on the threshold as you look from the street. It is more normal to have only the surname on the threshold.

Figure 2. Conarroe plot threshold. Orthogonal view from street. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

The Conarroe threshold, which is the subject of this post, comes upon the viewer suddenly, as one rises on the road leading from the bridge that comes over from the main area of the cemetery (figure 2). At first glance it looks all tilty, but after about a second one sees that it is a trapezoid. The view in figure 2 looks directly along an axis perpendicular to the edge of the road and also to the long sides of the threshold. The letters and edges of the bevel in which they are carved are deliberately tilted at an angle which respects the angles of the trapezoid.

Figure 3. Conarroe plot. Axial view from threshold to monument. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

A threshold implies a plot, and a quick survey will turn up the Conarroe monument proper, half hidden behind a bush. The monument (with its plot) appears to date to around 1905. The overgrown bush was once part of a symmetrical landscaping solution, but the bush on the right died and went to tree heaven (figure 3). You see, of course, that the angle of the trapezoid was chosen to have the short sides of the threshold establish an axis that perpendicularly bisects the monument. Still, the letters look obviously tilted.

Figure 4. Conarroe threshold. Optimal view. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

The trompe l’oeil effect falls into place when you find and stand in (and take a photograph from) a privileged point established by the architect (figure 4). In this case, that spot is in the road rising from the entrance to this part of the cemetery—the privileged direction of approach. This is to the left of the threshold as you look at it from the street. See how the threshold looks as though it is rectilinear with respect to the road, and the carved letters have snapped into an apparent conformity with that rectilinearity (figure 4).

See that the two pieces of curbing framing the steps are of uneven width (figure 3); the one on the right is wider. But from the privileged point of observation the wider one is the further one, and that corrects the imbalance.

Unfortunately, the overgrown bush hides the monument from the optimal viewpoint, something that was clearly not intended by the landscape architect. You’re meant to see the threshold and the axial path to the monument which is diagonal across the plot—and therefore designedly longer than the approach could have been made had it been on axis with the plot. See in figure 3 how the left hand boundary stone points right to the bush that survives. The latter is squeezed into the left-rear of the plot. The other boundary stone can be seen to the right of the threshold in figure 4, and you can see how the plot goes in directly from the street whereas the threshold-monument axis is on a diagonal.

The stone to the immediate right of the threshold is not a boundary stone but protects it from errant drivers or snow plows. You can see how the threshold has been clipped on the uphill side—the side on which a driver obeying the right-side rule would approach (figures 2, 3, and 4).

Figure 5. Conarroe threshold. ‘Reverse’ optimal view. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA. Photo: author.

I also show how the angle opposite the optimal one, i.e., to the uphill side of the plot, gives a more or less coherent perspectival view (figure 5). It doesn’t work quite as well as the view from downslope, but it works well enough that the the image, were it to be taken at face value, would look orthogonal to the street. I sidled back and forth a number of times, but the view never quite crystalized like the optimal view does.

The unknown landscape architect had a lot of fun here, though I presume he or she presented it as a practical solution to maximize the axis between threshold and monument to the buyer. But props to the buyer, too, for seeing that the proposed solution was interesting and worth investing in!

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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