Figure 1. Dietz mausoleum. Forest Lawn Cemetery, Omaha, NE. Photo: author.

Forest Lawn Cemetery in Omaha, Nebraska, is the home to the splendid Egyptian Revival mausoleum of the locally prominent Dietz family, Charles (1853-1933) and Nettie (1860-1939). He was a lumber baron and well connected to railroad tycoon Jay Gould. His house was a Mecca (a cliché I use advisedly) for the greats of his day, including Pershing, Twain, Hoover, Gould, Roosevelt, and Taft.

Oliver Pollak’s fine history of the Dietzes’ lives, travels, and art collecting makes for interesting reading. I’m concerned with their Egyptian Revival mausoleum, of course, which Pollak rightly connects to the Dietzes’ having traveled to Egypt and Africa thirteen times from the 1890s through 1931. Fascinatingly we discover that Nettie worked closely with the architect on the mausoleum Whether the mausoleum was built before or after Charles’ death is not made clear, though the font in which the name DIETZ is carved over the doorway looks more like it belongs in the aughts or teens.

Charles and Nettie were clearly fascinated by Egypt and its funerary tombs, and they visited archaeological excavations in Egypt and Pompeii. Their collection idealized Egypt, and their final resting place, the Dietz Mausoleum, at Forest Lawn Cemetery . . . reflects their Egyptomania. Nettie took charge of designing the mausoleum and had several conferences with the architect. The result is one of the most interesting specimens of mausoleum architecture in the country. The style, inscriptions and windows are noteworthy. The Temple of Karnak and its interior tabernacle influenced the shape. The slightly slanted walls are typical Egyptianate. The lotus blossom, winged disk, and sacred asp carvings translate symbolically as “The Creator; God Over All; Destroyer of Evil and Death.”

Oliver B. Pollak, “Capitalism, Culture, and Philanthropy: Charles N. and Nettie Fowler Dietz of Omaha, 1881-1939,” Nebraska History 79 (1998): 34-43.

There are three Tiffany windows in the mausoleum; I was able to see only one thanks to the nature of the doors and the light when I visited (figure 2).

Figure 2. Dietz mausoleum, rear window. Tiffany and Co. art glass reproduction of Talbot Kelly (1861-1934), At Prayer in the Desert. Forest Lawn Cemetery, Omaha, NE. Photo: author.

The rear window (figure 2), astonishingly, is a Tiffany & Co. reproduction in art glass of At Prayer in the Desert, an 1880 painting by Robert Talbot Kelly (1861-1934). The original, or rather a photograph of a 1904 copy of the painting can be seen here. Pollak, the biographer again:

They also held Islam in awe. “There is one thing you cannot help having respect for—the Mohammedan and his religion. It makes no difference where he is—desert, street, or reception—when the hour comes for him to pray, he prays regardless of his surroundings.” They photographed fellow passengers praying, purchased a Koran parchment manuscript, and adorned their mausoleum with Tiffany stained glass windows of Talbot Kelly’s At Prayer in the Desert (two moslems) [figure2], A Nile Afterglow, and A Desert Scout (on horseback).

Full Citation: Oliver B. Pollak, “Capitalism, Culture, and Philanthropy: Charles N. and Nettie Fowler Dietz of Omaha, 1881-1939,” Nebraska History 79 (1998): 34-43.

It is a wonder to find a fine art glass reproduction of a sympathetic orientalist painting in a mausoleum in Omaha, Nebraska; and a wonder to discover buried within two midwesterners so sensitive to and in love with northern Africa.

Figure 3. Dietz mausoleum. Three-quarter view. Forest Lawn Cemetery, Omaha, NE. Photo: author.

As a final note, the overall design of the mausoleum is pretty typical Egyptian revival as practiced in early twentieth-century America. But if you look closely at the columns in figure 3, you’ll see that the abacus, the block above the flaring papyrus-flower capital, is very small compared to the width of the capital itself. This is Nettie’s contribution, as Pollak notes (see above) citing the great hypostyle hall of the Temple of Amun at Karnak (figure 4).

Figure 4. Luxor: great forecourt of the temple of Amun at Karnak. Photo: Marc Ryckaert. CC-BY_SA 4.0. Wikimedia Commons.

The striking effect of such a design is to give the impression that the lintel floats above the capital.

Let’s pull out a comparandum in Scranton, the Krotosky mausoleum in Temple Israel Cemetery (figure 5). It’s a fine Egyptian Revival mausoleum maybe from the 1910s, that draws upon the same design sources as the Dietzes’ (cf. figure 4).

Figure 5. Krotosky mausoleum. Temple Israel Cemetery, Scranton, PA. Photo: author.

The Krotoskys did not quite have the plutocratic wealth to throw at their project that the Dietzes had, and a careful comparison will show where costs were cut. But interestingly, though the Krotosky architect employs papyrus columns and even has the small abaci above them, nevertheless the slender width of the capitals and the quite tall abaci spoils completely the conceit the Egyptian and Dietz architects pull off of having the lintel seem to float above the capitals when you’re close to the building.

We also see the strong pull of the Egyptian revival among the well-to-do across America which edged out, in the case of the Krotoskys, the unfavorable position of Egypt in the Hebrew Bible (slavery, polytheism, Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson). But in the Dietzes’ case their love of Egypt and Islam caused them to build not only a mausoleum for themselves but a shrine to that love which had animated their lives.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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