In his guide to New York Cemeteries, Douglas Keister enumerates the “big four”: Green-Wood, Woodlawn, Sleepy Hollow, and Kensico. Today’s reading comes from the book of Kensico.
The Hollywood director J. Gordon Edwards died in 1925 and left behind a fantastic mausoleum. Or rather, Edwards’ wife, Angela, caused the mausoleum we now see (figure 1) to be built. The Pedia of Wiki likens it to the Taj Mahal; Keister writes, “Angela commissioned a mausoleum some years after Edwards’ death, and it is an homage to the exotic high-production period films Edwards directed.” The first description is merely impressionistic; it is hard to dispute Keister’s assessment, but it doesn’t go very far.
To be sure, the mausoleum boasts two miniature minarets, giving it the feel of Islamic revival architecture. They are wonderful, and one can just see in my figure 2 the (now broken) lamp in the north tower: the minarets were wired and once served as beacons. The decoration is influenced by Islamic style and carried through the interior and exterior of the mausoleum and minarets with consistency (figures 3, 4, and see below).
Still, the architect assembled disparate pieces into an attractive whole that can be called Islamic or Moorish revival architecture. It’s worth remembering, however, that the Edwards mausoleum proper (figure 5) is a knockoff, on a slightly smaller scale, of Louis Sullivan’s 1892 Wainwright mausoleum in Bellefontaine Cemetery in Saint Louis, Missouri (figure 6).
The mausoleum was “designed” and built by Presbrey-Leland, and it was enough an object of pride to them that they included it in their 1932 catalog with a photograph like my figure 1:
The dome was a traditional feature in the architecture of the East and it became the dominant motif of the Byzantine style. The domical shrines and tombs of the East suggested this mausoleum adapted from the Egypto-Arabic and Indo-Moslem styles. The ornament is Cairene and minarets are introduced to accentuate the Eastern influence of the design. PL22424 designed and erected for Mrs. J. Gordon Edwards, New York City.The Book of Presbrey-Leland Memorials (1932) p. 36.
The text was generated by an ad copy writer and understandably elides mention of Sullivan while delivering the same impressionistic view of the style that we see modern wikipedists offer. It is fair to see an influence from Cairo’s Mamluk ornamented domes in the Edwards decoration.
Sullivan’s Wainwright mausoleum is one of the monuments of American architecture, and had a substantial influence, or Nachleben, as we academics pretentiously put it. I’ve already identified a West Laurel Hill mausoleum influenced by it (and to a greater degree his Getty mausoleum) here.
Another example of the influence of the Wainwright mausoleum in the context of ‘Eastern influences’ has been noted in McDowell and Meyer’s The Revival Styles in American Memorial Art (1994) 176 and their figure 133. They spotted the Arthur Barba, Sr., mausoleum, a cramped version of the Wainwright one, “designed and built by the Arthur Weiblen firm” in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans Louisiana. Barba’s first wife died in 1909, which might furnish a date for his mausoleum. He died in 1936.
All well and good, but I didn’t bring you here to parade my knowledge of Sullivan’s mausolea and Presbrey-Leland work. Rather, I came to astound you with the moldy slimy mess I observed on the floor of the mausoleum’s interior (figures 7, 8).
A quick look at the interior shows it to be constructed of pink Georgia marble with a grey marble floor. There is a large sarcophagus in white marble against the rear wall which bears the inscription, “L’Amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle,” from Dante’s Commedia. One can see the continuation of the ornamental motifs within the mausoleum.
But you’ll also notice the chair, the sort of hellish Eros on a fine marble pedestal, and the slimy mess in the middle of the floor. When I first saw it, from the door (to the right, out of view in figure 7), it looked like a heap of slimy mold that had fallen from the ceiling–but the ceiling is clean. Some jockeying around and I could see the shape of a feline skull and teeth: IT’S A TIGER SKIN! It is completely moldy and surrounded by liquid. But the stripes on the head are still clear enough (figure 8).
Keister states that Mrs. Edwards used to come to the mausoleum and read in the chair. I suppose the Eros was her way of symbolizing her love. She reportedly had her ashes mixed with Edwards’ in the Dante sarcophagus when she died in 1965.
I approve wholeheartedly of this mausoleum, because it has a confluence of things I like: it’s good architecture (if not exactly original), it tries to be unusual instead of staid (Islamic revival was not exactly common in the 1920s), it’s quirky (Tiger skin!), and it had what I think of as 1920s attempts at atmosphere, for example in the lights in the minarets. It would have been something, I think, to behold this mausoleum with its beacons lit on a moonlit night.
And in that sensibility I think we see the aesthetic of olde Hollywood.
[Blame Google translate if there’s something wrong with the title . . . .]