There are 27,000 permanent residents within the 142 acres of the Pittsfield Cemetery, the second largest in the Berkshires, and by far the most densely populated. Examples of Neoclassical, Romanesque, Gothic Revival, and even Byzantine architecture can be found along the cemetery’s winding roads and undulating romantic landscape dotted with specimen trees. Yet, with all its historic and natural assets, the Pittsfield Cemetery probably ranks amongst the least visited of the Berkshires’ historic and cultural attractions.
As Halloween approaches, interest in cemeteries tends to bump up, but they really do merit year-round attention. They offer valuable and interesting lessons in social, religious, artistic, and architectural histories of the communities in which they stand. The Berkshires hold many historic cemeteries, ranging from small roadside family plots in the countryside to typical New England church graveyards that date back to the 1700s. The Pittsfield Cemetery stands out as arguably the best example of the 19th century rural cemetery movement found in the region.
Its origins date to 1849. At the time, Pittsfield had a problem. Yet again, the town was running out of space for its dearly departed. The Old Burying Ground, established in 1764 near the present day Park Square, had run out of space decades earlier. The New Burial Ground was established in 1832 (near First Street) for more recent and future departed. But in less than twenty years, the population in Pittsfield had grown by over 60 percent, from roughly 3,700 to nearly 6,000 citizens. With textile, paper, and other industries flourishing, it seemed unlikely that the town’s growth would stop. Not only would there soon be no more room to bury the dead, but both burying grounds were taking up valuable real estate in what was rapidly becoming the business and civic center of the community. A committee of prominent citizens was formed to address the issue. They decided the time was right for Pittsfield to establish a “rural cemetery.”
The Rural Cemetery Movement
In America, the rural cemetery movement had begun several decades earlier in response to the rise of urbanization brought on by the Industrial Revolution as well as to the nascent Romantic Movement which encouraged a profoundly emotional response to nature. As the population of cities and towns grew, burials next to churches or near town centers presented spatial as well as potential health problems. Inspired by the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and influenced by the traditions of English landscape gardening, large parcels of land were purchased outside town limits to afford the space to accommodate centuries of the dead. Providing a handsome and spacious environment for eternal rest, these rural cemeteries were intended to be multi-functional. Before the establishment of large parks and museums, rural cemeteries were close enough to congested urban areas to be an easy walk or ride for visitors, offering an opportunity to connect with nature. Strolling in idealized rural settings, visitors could admire monuments that reflected both classical architectural and contemporary artistic styles.
Pittsfield’s committee went to work planning the new rural cemetery. They found a 130-acre farm (over 25 times the size of its in-town cemeteries) and purchased it. In April 1850, they visited a number of far-flung established rural cemeteries in Boston, Springfield, Albany, and New York for inspiration and tapped Dr. Horatio Stone, of New York City, to design it.
A physician, poet and artist best remembered as a sculptor, Stone might have seemed an unconventional choice. But he was a man of many talents, including being active in the field of landscape architecture. The plan he developed took advantage of the former farm’s topography and existing groves. Starting at an entry gate on Wahconah Street, he created a long maple-lined drive. Stone’s proposal included a small lake made by damning the Onota Creek, which took advantage of the relatively flat eastern portion of the site. As the property rose gently westward, fifteen organically shaped burial knolls were fashioned atop small hillocks with interlaced walking paths and carriage roads that followed their contours. Each section was given a name inspired by nature or history. The landscape’s natural assets were accentuated by a fountain and new specimen plantings.
Work proceeded at a rapid pace, with enough roads and walks in place for the cemetery’s formal dedication on September 9th, 1850. Over four thousand people turned out in a show of civic pride, listening to speeches, prayers, and a poem specially written for the occasion by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Sales of family plots began the following month.
Over the next one hundred and seventy years the cemetery grew, evolving and adapting in response to changing times, tastes and economics. More land was acquired, sections were added, the lake was eventually drained and, sadly, the fountain is long gone. What is remarkable, however, is how much of the original design remains intact, its present day appearance still reflecting Dr. Stone’s vision and foresight. The Committee clearly selected the right man.
Contemporary visitors enter the cemetery through a massive castellated stone gate off busy Wahconah Street. Once you are inside the gate, an ancient-looking stone chapel and tidy brick cottage might lead you to believe mistakenly that you are on the outskirts of an ancient village in the English countryside. Interestingly, none of these structures was part of the cemetery’s original plan.
The Allen Memorial Arch and Gate on Wahconah Street was designed by Boston architect J. Phillip Rinn in the Romanesque Revival style and constructed in 1885 of rusticated Great Barrington bluestone. The Rinn gate replaced a simpler original gate designed by Dr. Stone.
There may be several reasons for the replacement. First, the city was spreading outward, so that by 1885 the area surrounding the cemetery had become increasingly industrial. The Onota Creek, which flowed through the cemetery and fed its picturesque lake, was attractive to mill owners, who wanted to harness its waterpower for their factories. Funeral customs were also evolving, becoming more elaborate and formal during the Victorian era. We can only speculate that a formal and imposing entry helped separate the graveyard from the surrounding neighborhood, while creating a more ceremonial and imposing entrance at the same time. On the other hand, the Allen family, who provided the funds for the gate, had a decided taste for the monumental and may have dictated the style—they also underwrote the costs to build the fortress-like Pittsfield Athenaeum, a Romanesque structure in downtown Pittsfield, around the same time.
Inside the cemetery grounds, you will see several buildings that, like the gate, are not part of the original plan. One of the more prominent is the Calvin Martin Memorial Chapel, designed by George C. Harding (the architect of Pittsfield’s Berkshire Museum), and dating from 1900. Incorporating Romanesque and Gothic Revival styles, it was funded by Mrs. Allen Blagg as a memorial to her grandfather, the first president of the Pittsfield Cemetery Corporation.
The brick superintendent’s house is another newer structure, built in 1939 to replace the original Carpenter Gothic house that had burned down around 1930. The cemetery office is located in a wing of the cottage. It is a great place to stop for information and to pick up a handy guide and map to orient yourself to the grounds.
The maple allée envisioned by Dr. Stone still lines the cemetery road as it passes through newer areas established in the 20th century. Driving down the road, notice the dark-trimmed grey stone structure emerging from the western slope of Chapel Hill. It is one of the oldest extant structures on the property. Completed in the 1860s, it served as a receiving vault and was later converted into a crematory. The structure’s pared down Gothic Revival style reflects the rural simplicity of the cemetery’s early structures, while the somber tones of the stonework and wizened arborvitae standing guard around it lend the building a spooky air.
To tour the cemetery, I recommend parking near the West Fountain Lawn and taking a leisurely stroll along the winding paths and roadways. Walking is the best way to explore the historic core of the area, which is how its designer intended the landscape to be experienced. And, if you are visiting in the Halloween season and are looking for Gothic atmosphere, pick an overcast day for your visit.
As you stroll along, notice the simple double tomb constructed of white marble set in the embankment of Terrace Grove. While the tomb on the left appears undisturbed, fallen pieces of marble lie on the ground outside the second. There is also a jagged opening in the building’s rusted metal door, damage caused by vents having been ripped off. The destruction lends credence to the idea that someone desperately wanted to get in—or out!
Looking across the cemetery’s original burial knolls, a preponderance of vertical monuments dominates the view—randomly spaced monuments of various shapes and heights resemble a garden of chess figures haphazardly planted in the hillside. While some are in the form of columns or Celtic crosses, by far the most numerous are obelisks. This is not a coincidence—in the decades before and after the cemetery was established, America was in the throes of “Obeliskmania.”
Ancient and classical forms had already come into vogue during the Enlightenment era. But Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1798 sparked a craze for all things Egyptian. Obelisks, seen as symbols of eternity and ancient glory, first appeared in the United States as large monuments commemorating the heroic battles of the American Revolution, as well as in honor of the men who fought for our freedom. Relatively inexpensive to create, obelisks required a much smaller footprint than say a pyramid—or sphinx—hence, the quick adoption of the form to memorialize private individuals or a town’s most prominent citizens, or to mark a family plot.
Given their sheer quantity, along with the human desire for originality, the caps of obelisks in the cemetery show a great range of styles, which help to identify and differentiate neighboring monuments from each other. Think of these variations like not wanting to be caught at a party next to someone wearing the same outfit.
By virtue of size and color, there is one obelisk that manages to stand head and shoulders above the rest. Rising 42 pink and gleaming granite feet above the crest of High Grove, the majestic spire demands attention. It may not be surprising to learn that the Allen family—the same family responsible for the monumental cemetery gate—erected it to honor Thomas A. Allen, a native Pittsfield son who made his fortune in Missouri. The granite for the obelisk was found at a quarry conveniently owned by the Allen family back in Missouri. The original plan called for a 48-foot high obelisk, but several feet broke off the top during construction. Even so, the monument is still the largest piece of quarried red granite in the world.
For those who preferred their monuments a little less “pharaonic,” classical columns provided an excellent alternative to the obelisk. There are many examples of such columns throughout the cemetery. One supposes columns connoted the democratic ideals of ancient Greece—or the imperial power of ancient Rome—depending on the dearly departed’s particular proclivities. There are also a fair number of Celtic Crosses, a daring option with their hint of paganism.
Towards the latter part of the 19th and into the early 20th century, neoclassicism took more elaborate forms in the cemetery. A few good examples can be found in the Linden Grove and Walnut Hill Sections, including the Collins monument, where Doric columns support a fully pedimented gable similar to the roof of a porch or house. Another example is the Clapp Bagg mausoleum, a full-blown approximation of a Roman temple that dominates Walnut Hill.
Floating like an exotic lantern on Linden Slope, near the western edge of the cemetery, is the exquisite Byzantine-style mausoleum designed by New York artist Mary Tillinghast for Gordon McKay. Completed in 1894 and constructed of Lee marble, the hexagonal structure features exterior ogee arches. Sliding bronze doors open into a jewel box interior with an exquisite glass mosaic ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows. Tillingast was accomplished in a number of decorative arts, and her stained glass is considered on par with that of her contemporaries John LaFarge and Louis Comfort Tiffany. The mausoleum is the only known building where Tillinghast was responsible for all design elements. McKay left his fortune to Harvard University with the proviso that they fund a trust for the mausoleum’s continued maintenance.
While death may be the great equalizer, as in life, some of the dead are more equal than others.
Dr. Stone planned two sections of the cemetery for those of lesser means, Pilgrims Rest and Free Ground, located at the northwest corner of the cemetery. Designed in rectangular sections, the site plan includes single gravesites for those unable to afford a plot for their entire family. While these sections appear relatively empty, this is an illusion; many of the interred rest under stones flush with the ground.
Pilgrim’s Rest had the dubious distinction of hosting the cemetery’s very first interment on October 17th, 1850, when, tragically, George and Abigail Doughty’s one-month-and-29-days-old son George V. Doughty was laid to rest there.
While little George was the first burial in the new cemetery, his gravestone is not the oldest. Nearby, along the Cemetery’s northern border there are three rows of tightly packed gravestones of various color and condition. These stones were moved from the Old Burying Ground sometime around 1870. Whether all of the bodies commemorated by these stones made the trip to the country is not known, but the styles of these markers—of men, women, and children who died as far back as the 1760s—offer a unique opportunity to study styles and forms commonly found in late 17th and early 18th century graveyards.
For Jewish burials, the Anshe Amunim Congregation purchased a long section along Onota Street adjacent to the cemetery’s northern border in 1871. Several decades later, the Knesset Israel Congregation purchased a section at the other end of the same border. Because of these relatively long and narrow spaces, the Jewish graves are arranged in tighter rows than those found in the older “rural” sections of the cemetery.
The Berkshire Eagle took note of some of the notable new monuments erected in the cemetery during the previous year of 1872. The paper described W. H. Root’s monument as “representing a pile of rocks.” The reference to Mr. Root’s pile of rocks should more accurately have been to his “cairn.” Either way, the mention was significant because, although classical forms persisted into the latter part of the 19th century, natural forms and references to nature were becoming the more common elements in monument design.
While certain flowers (roses, lilies etc.) were already tombstone iconography, in the late 19th century motifs pushed beyond traditional depictions of wreaths and garlands and single blooms. The newer gravestones included palm fronds or oak and laurel leaf-covered crosses. Roses appeared to grow out of some new monuments, while ivy trailed luxuriantly, in some cases threatening to engulf the face of the stones they were carved into. Gravestones took the shape of logs or trunks with portions of other monuments left in a “rough” or “unfinished “state. These naturalistic monuments were often paired with flanking shrubs—adding a green element. Sometimes a third shrub was added behind a gravestone, for a green trifecta.
The trend towards naturalism reached its apogee in the late 1920s with the Francis and Graves plots.
In 1927, the Francis family commissioned famed architect John Russell Pope to design their plot. The result was a relatively restrained and understated retaining wall, which served as a foil for the surrounding plantings. Featuring magnolia, dogwood, and lilacs, the progression of spring flowering shrubs and trees are the real stars of the show.
And, in 1929, Mr. and Mrs. Merle Graves hired the Olmsted Brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted and partners in a landscape architecture business, to plan their plot. (The firm had recently completed a residential project for the family.) The resulting design took the natural forms of actual boulders surrounded by yew, barberry and rhododendron accentuated by vibrant, almost neon, fall-blooming crocuses.
The Less-natural Shape of Things to Come
By the time these last two plots were created, they were an anomaly and not the beginning of a trend. The rural cemetery concept had begun to fall out of favor in the latter decades of the 19th century. Family plots sitting next to each other, filled with monuments of different shapes and styles, now seemed to the eyes of critics to lack cohesion, competing with the landscape instead of enhancing it. The establishment of city parks and museums meant the public no longer needed cemeteries to connect with nature or to appreciate historic and classical artistic movements reflected in their statues and monuments.
More than anything else, the rural cemeteries proved very expensive to maintain. Lawn cemeteries had now taken their place, featuring stones of similar size, placed at uniform intervals to allow easier mowing and maintenance. Larger trees and shrubs were eliminated for the same reason. It is ironic that a cemetery style that arose in part as a response to the Industrial Revolution would fall to a need for uniformity brought on by the dawn of the Machine Age. Happily, while the newer sections of the Pittsfield Cemetery adapted to the principles of lawn cemeteries, the adaptation was not rigid, allowing the newer and older sections to blend together relatively harmoniously.
There is so much to explore in the Pittsfield Cemetery that this story has only scratched the surface (pardon the pun). Whether your interest lies in history, landscape architecture, stone carving, or cemeteries in general, the Pittsfield Cemetery is definitely worth a visit—or many visits.
Note: For those interested in learning more, or preferring a virtual visit, the Pittsfield Cemetery maintains an excellent website.