A year ago I wrote a post titled Preterition in which I danced around the topic of what the suggestively phallic Thomas-Wetterau monument of 1917 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Nisky Hill Cemetery signifies (figure 1). Then I thought it must have its roots in Art Nouveau, but otherwise found it truly puzzling. Today, in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, I came a lot closer to having an answer.
To understand what I found, we should note that the Thomas-Wetterau monument is constructed of granite with a tannish cast, and, phallic associations aside, consists principally of a fat spiral with a conical cap. The stone has been given a high polish.
The Coane mausoleum in West Laurel Hill shares many stylistic elements with the Thomas-Wetterau shaft: let’s have a look.
First, the granite of the Coane mausoleum is about the same distinctive color as that of the Thomas-Wetterau monument. The body of the mausoleum is rusticated stone, but all of the decorative elements such as moldings, as well as the roof, are in the same highly polished style as the Bethlehem monument. The style of the mausoleum is Art Nouveau, and while the arch over the door seems Gothic, it is in fact the same shape as the cross section of the Thomas-Wetterau conical cap.
The name COANE is raised within a sunken cartouche with beveled corners in the same style as THOMAS-WETTERAU.
The cap on the shaft is topologically closer to the mausoleum’s rare hipped roof than it is to the overwhelmingly popular gabled ‘temple’ roofs one sees elsewhere in the cemetery. The hipped roof ‘encircles’ the square-plan building as the cone caps the spiral shaft by enclosing the top. Both architects—if they weren’t the same person—had a taste for neat caps.
The mausoleum’s three identical windows reveal its Art Nouveau roots most clearly with their mannered lunettes (figure 5). But it is the ‘mullion,’ a highly polished spiral molding (also seen flanking the door), that gives the game away. These spirals are like tightly coiled springs with caps on each end; take this design, enlarge it, and replace the upper cylindrical cap with a conical one: the result is the Thomas-Wetterau design. While there is no maker’s mark on either the mausoleum or the monument, it’s pretty clear that these two structures emerged from the same atelier.
More to the point, the Thomas-Wetterau monument embodies stylistic ideas visible in the Coane mausoleum, which is not phallic at all. Put another way, while we cannot absolve the Thomas-Wetterau architect of naughty intent in assembling existing stylistic bits and pieces into the Thomas-Wetterau monument, each of those pieces are used as common building blocks elsewhere, and their assemblage need not be suggestive. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.