Loss and attendant grief are terrible things, and to combat them some survivors attempt to distract themselves by entering wholeheartedly into “a project” of commemoration. Sometimes the project is selfless. Sometimes, wittingly or not, it becomes a statement about the commemorator: self-regard is a powerful lodestone. Gnawing doubt that one is engaging in excessive amour propre can be rationalized away by asserting that the project serves the memory of the deceased. The result of such a project is an astonishing display of visual funerary culture: you can see pretty clearly that over and over the commemorator said, like Steve Jobs at an Apple keynote, “one more thing . . . .”
In Durham, North Carolina, there is the astounding commemorative program created by the plutocrat Julian S. Carr to honor his wife, Nannie. Carr’s project zigs and zags across the space of many regular plots in Maplewood Cemetery. In Luray, Virginia, Terry Carothers erected a splendid monument to her husband Patrick, a U.S. Marshal killed in service. She did not have Carr’s budget, so that her canvas was restricted to a single stone. But what a stone, packed with what the academics would call ‘signifiers.’
We may now banish Carr and Carothers from the stage and introduce a new heavyweight champion of funerary projects: the wife of Augustine F. Falcione. Her name never appears within the publicly accessible areas of the supermegagalactic complex she created about fifteen years ago in Riverside Cemetery in Norristown, Pennsylvania, an exurb of Philadelphia (figure 1). I hope it means she is still alive and well.
Her budget was large, though not bottomless, and she was quite shrewd about getting a maximum of visual effect for her dollar. It’s hard for an interloper like me to blunder in and determine what was created by Falcione’s wife, and what was willed into existence by her designers of mausoleum and landscape. I hesitate to use the title architect, at least with respect to the temple-shaped mausoleum, because it clumsily or negligently breaks stylistic rules an architect of any training would avoid. However, like a bishop who approves a work of writing for print, Mrs. Falcione was the one who delivered the ‘nihil obstat’ and ‘imprimatur.’ Maybe we should call it an ‘aedificetur,’ but the point is she gave final approvals and wrote the checks and bears ultimate responsibility.
As with all of these projects, it’s hard to know where to begin, because so much is happening at once. It’s like trying to figure out which conversation to follow in a room where everyone is shouting loudly for attention at once. Still, we must begin somewhere, and as good a place as any is with the designer’s control of the basic rules of the classical orders.
Speaking formally, the Falcione mausoleum could be called a peripteral hexastyle temple exhibiting frontality by sitting on a podium and being approached by front steps. There are fancy Greek terms such as pycnostyle and areostyle for the various possible column spacing solutions in the front of a temple like this; there’s no term for the unorthodox Falcione setup, but ‘coulrostyle’ might answer.
So, compare figures 2, 3, and 4. Figure 3 shows the 1902 Rouss mausoleum in Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Winchester, Virginia, one of the great monuments of American funerary architecture. It scrupulously follows the rules, which the architect had studied and mastered. The big exception is the wider spacing of the central columns to facilitate getting coffins in, which is standard mausoleum practice.
Figure 4 shows the entablature of the nice little Doric temple built for Stewart McShea in about 1922. It stands maybe 100 meters from the Falcione mausoleum, and serves as a control that Norristown is not such an outlandish place that it would be unreasonable to expect architectural coherence there.
Now, this is not the place to explain the rules of the Doric order: I’ve done that here. What I can say is that the Falcione designer has chosen the Doric order as shown by the use of triglyphs, the repeating pattern of three verticals, and metopes, the repeating pattern of squares with ‘bullseye’ circles in them (figure 2). I emphasize the word choice: it is optional to go Doric. Indeed, the Falcione designer has been pulled in several directions, as we’ll see, but it is the mark of an architect to show coherence and restraint. (I’ll overlook the work of Morris Lapidus, whose autobiography was titled Too Much Is Never Enough.)
If you do choose to adopt the Doric, you are obligated to make at least a half-hearted attempt to abide by its organic rules. Otherwise, why bring it in to begin with. One of those rules: a triglyph must be centered over each column. We’ll give the Falcioni architect a pass on the triglyphs over the end columns: not even the Greeks figured that one out satisfactorily, though they tended to follow the practice shown in figures 2 and 4, the Romans the practice in figure 3.
I’ve annotated images 2 and 4 and placed them in a gallery as new images 5 and 6. You can instantly see that the McShea columns have triglyphs over them (and so do the Rouss columns, if you go back and check, figure 3). The Falcione columns never line up with a triglyph, and looking ahead (figures 7, 9, 10), this is true for every column on the whole mausoleum. This would actually seem hard to manage, even if the placement were random. Further, the Falcione designer has brought in elements of the Corinthian order in the column capitals and the tooth-like projections (called dentils) under the raking roof lines of the pediment (figures 5-6 and 7-8).
At this point it is possible to say that architecturally the design is falling apart for lack of coherence and logic. Structurally it may be sound; I suspect it’s built on a steel frame. Mrs. Falcione was of course allowed to say, “I think the temple should have these things (triglyphs and metopes), but I think these columns (Corinthian) are prettier,” and so on. Still, it was her architect’s job to tell her that such choices were going to trash the solemnity she wanted to bring to Augustine’s commemoration.
Figures 7 and 8 illustrate some of the building techniques. I won’t go into detail here; see the annotations in figure 8.
As we move to the rear, we should note the landscaping that surrounds the structure (figures 1, 11, 14): cypresses, boxwood hedge, hastas, begonias, and in the rear a number of different plants I am unable to name. The goal is to create a little Mediterranean landscape in Norristown, which is fine, but will need rather more than the ‘perpetual care’ cemeteries offer to keep it tidy in the long run.
Figure 2 shows the front pediment, which has an inserted tympanum sculpted from (I suspect) Italian marble. Falcione’s initial is heraldically displayed on an oval shield supported in baroque fashion by two amorini. Swags, garlands, and ribbons abound in this busy composition, which takes us further away from the temples this mausoleum might have been modeled on.
The rear pediment (figure 10), constructed of the same grayish tan stone as the rest of the mausoleum, features a white marble dove rising in flight with a sprig of (I think) olive in its beak. It is affixed to a green marble background and surrounded by a wreath of laurel bound at the bottom by a ribbon (figure 11).
However, it is clear that the Falcione project initially involved another marble tympanum, similar to the front one, inserted in the rear. I say that with confidence because when plans to use it were abandoned in favor of the dove, someone insisted on exhibiting the pediment anyway, on a stand erected in the landscaping behind the mausoleum (figure 12)! I told you Mrs. F. was shrewd about getting visual bang for her buck!
In the rear of the mausoleum, in a position corresponding to the front door, is a leaded glass window. There was no way to see it in transmitted light, the front door being opaque, but its outlines can be made out in reflected light (figure 13). My photo is awful, and I’m sorry for that.
From what I can see, there is a winged figure, either an angel or the risen Falcione, sitting on rock below a sky. A ribbon winds its way around the figure, and to its left (in our view) is what I believe to be a stylized version of the duomo of Florence. Hidden by the real flower vase is a tablet bearing the monogram AFF, Augustine F. Falcione (figure 14). I’d not be surprised to find Falcione depicted as rising from his grave burst asunder, a conceit more common in Europe than here.
Returning to the front porch and the ‘piazza’ in front of it, we are once again beset by a multitude of voices shouting for attention (figure 15). Centered in a place of honor in the piazza is a replica of William Wetmore Story’s Angel of Grief. Behind her, still within the piazza, is a free-standing statue of a female figure. The door to the mausoleum proper is flanked by two symmetrical caryatids, and two stone lamps with eternal flames flank the top of the steps from the piazza to the porch. The piazza is paved with slate and is reached from the road in front by two shallow steps. Finally, there are two benches in the piazza, one a quarter-circle at the right-rear of the area, the other a half circle to the left of the Story sculpture.
All the female figures exhibit the conventional features of young women, but they contrast in a way reminiscent of the Madonna/whore dichotomy. The free-standing figure (figure 16) is densely and fully wrapped in an olde tyme gown or cloak that, together with her clasped arms, seems to indicate an inward direction. The cloak rises over the head to create a veil. The iconography is not quite the Virgin Mary, though it approximates it.
At a guess, I’d say it’s the grieving widow assimilating herself to the Madonna. The foot resting on the chopped wood recalls Mary’s foot on the snake. Statues often have marble stumps next to them to add support; but I suspect more is going on here with the stump and the lopped limbs under her feet. Stumps symbolize death, which is fitting here. What the corded wood under her left foot means I can’t quite figure out.
Having seen a Madonna figure, we turn to the mild ‘hot-cha-cha’ eroticism of the Caryatids with their exposed legs daintily posed one foot upon the other. Their dresses are not quite sheer, but are meant to be seen as such, since they fully reveal the feminine form and magically cling to the breasts. Their hair falls in a cascade over their shoulders to well past the cinch at the waist. Like the Doric appliqué in the entablature, this clothing makes no logical sense, except that here the clothing is meant to reveal.
The statues must be sold in sets of two symmetrical pieces by one of those garden sculpture houses; they make no sense architecturally in that they do not notionally support anything except pails pouring forth flowers. You can get a feel for these things over at Design Toscano.
The piece to resist is the quite good replica (figure 18) of William Wetmore Story’s Angel of Grief (figure 19). Story’s sculpture has been copied and adapted countless times in American funerary settings. Many examples have been collected over at Gravely Speaking, for example here and here. Improbably, there is even a version in white bronze seen in Kraft Graceland Memorial Park in New Albany, Indiana, and this implies mass production!
Replicas of Story’s Angel are certainly mass produced nowadays, and there was even at one point a double version in miniature as a cinerary urn, now discontinued (figure 18a).
Unlike the resin-cast things one sees elsewhere (the Falcione caryatids are an example), this replica was cut from real marble by the hands and tools of a real sculptor. You can see the modern predilection for (among other things) well-muscled female figures, but overall, the copyist hews well to the spirit of the original, which is in the Cimitero acattolico in Rome.
On the front of the altar upon which the angel of grief rests is Falcione’s anagraphic data (figure 20):
The mausoleum proper took a couple of years to build; the cornerstone, by the foot of the madonna statue, reads 2005.
But on the right side of the steps leading up to the altar is a complicated inscription (figure 21):
Inspired by the work of the famous sculptor W. W. Story, I dedicate / this “Weeping Angel” statue to my beloved husband as a symbol of / my endless devotion, profound appreciation, and eternal love. I will forever celebrate / his great life and feel surrounded by his memory and love. /
His adoring wife /
Quite in keeping with this inscription is that on the semicircular bench (figure 22):
AUGUSTINE F. FALCIONE
AMOR AETERNUM EST
[Love is an eternal thing]
Surprisingly, it can’t be “Love is eternal” for reasons having to do with grammatical gender in Latin.
I did not write this post to encourage derision of Mrs. Falcione, though kindness itself would admit she has sedulously courted it. I would not be unhappy if this post served some as a cautionary tale. But if I deplore the failures of taste here, I also admire the energy that radiates from this project, and I am grateful to the universe that such things exist to bring interest and fascination into the world.