Not only is it great to revisit old architectural inspirations but also to recognize that what they built with not only adds beauty but also endurance. If these tombs can survive Katrina then they will certainly add value to your next paint project.
A walk through one of New Orleans’ older cemeteries reveals a great deal about our city and its history, for although the tombs were designed as eternal resting places, they also reflect popular styles and materials of the era in which they were built.
The tombs of Metairie Cemetery, for example, reveal revivals of Greek and Gothic motifs alongside Romanesque and Egyptian themes, together with structures as singular as the local residents who commissioned them.
Many of the architectural styles in Metairie Cemetery parallel trends in residential and commercial architecture of New Orleans’ past, said Heather Knight, a preservation consultant and instructor in the Preservation Studies program at Tulane University’s School of Architecture.
Some of the city’s best-known architects — including J.N.B. de Pouilly — designed tombs for the historic cemeteries. Over time, tombs became mass-produced, and it became popular to order them from catalogs, much like the “gingerbread” that appears on many late-19th century houses.
This time of year, with All Saints’ Day on the horizon, cemetery visits increase dramatically as families tend tombs and place fresh flowers to honor their loved ones.
Knight, an expert on historic tomb styles and construction techniques, suggests it’s worthwhile to linger a little longer than usual — as was the custom in the past — and take time to explore the astounding beauty and varied architectural styles of the cemetery streetscape.
Just as the Greek Revival style was popular in residential architecture in New Orleans in the mid-1800s, it became a very popular style for tombs.
Standing in front of the William Helis tomb, Knight explained the significance of its design.
“First of all, it has classic Greek Revival shapes and forms, elements that we see on houses and public buildings built in the same style,” Knight said.
“But in the case of this tomb, the Greek Revival style is especially apt because the family is of Greek ancestry. The story is that the family imported soil from Greece so that the tomb would be built on Greek soil.”
Knight noted the temple-like configuration of the stately structure, then its individual components: The triangular pediment on top, the Ionic columns, the Greek Key door surround around the entry to the vault.
“See the engraved pattern ringing this urn?” Knight asked. “That pattern is another element that is common in classical Greek architecture.”
Knight also pointed out the grid pattern on the side of the tomb. “These are actual blocks of granite, fitted together with mortar in between.
“In our oldest cemeteries like St. Louis 1 and 2, you might see a pattern like this, but it isn’t really blocks of stone fitted together — it’s a pattern scored into the lime wash over brick to make it appear as though it’s made of the more expensive material.”
Knight’s consulting business, Chaux Vive, has repaired and restored many of the city’s most ancient brick tombs with funding from the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries.
“Tombs weren’t the only places that people scored the plaster surface to make them look like they were built of more expensive stone; they did it on the facades of houses too,” she said.
There are only a few Egyptian Revival structures in New Orleans, most notably the former courthouse, now the Knights of Babylon den, on Rousseau Street near Jackson Avenue.
But the style was popular in cemetery architecture and can be found throughout Metairie Cemetery and in the entry pillars at nearby Cypress Grove.
The tomb of Lucien Brunswig is perhaps Metairie Cemetery’s most frequently photographed because of its pyramidal shape and sphinx sculpture.
“The Brunswig tomb is the most obvious example of the Egyptian Revival style in this cemetery, though there are other tombs that are much simpler but still incorporate a lot of elements of the style,” Knight said.
The winged orb in the carving over the door is meant to symbolize divine protection, much as the sphinx serves as an eternal guardian, Knight said.
The surround for the bronze entry gates flares out toward the bottom, another stylistic identifier, and a cavetto, or concave cornice, tops the doorway. Carving in the cavetto represents lotus leaves, another familiar motif in Egyptian Revival style.
In most cases, choosing an Egyptian Revival style for a tomb would have simply been a reference to classical, timeless forms, but Knight said it had a special meaning to Brunswig,
“The story is that the tomb was modeled on one in Brunswig’s hometown of Munich in Germany,” Knight said. “It’s another case like the Helis tomb, in which the choice of the appearance of the tomb is inspired by the homeland.”
Knight acknowledges that the Gothic revival style in New Orleans is found mostly in churches or commercial buildings (such as the former Leeds Foundry on Tchoupitoulas Street, now the headquarters of the Preservation Resource Center) rather than in residential neighborhoods.
But in the cemetery, the style may well be one of the most plentiful.
A prime example is the dramatic Egan family tomb, modeled on the ruins of an abbey that is said to have existed on the Egans’ ancestral estate in Ireland.
“In other tombs, you’ll see Gothic Revival elements like pointed arches supported by columns, trefoil motifs and abstracted buttresses, all applied to a mausoleum form,” Knight said.
“But the Egan tomb takes the form of an actual structure that has been ruined, with broken towers and walls.”
One fascinating element of the tomb is the “faux aging” that was applied when the tomb was built, to underscore the motif of decay and deterioration.
“If you look closely at the stone, you can see fake cracks and areas of the smooth stone surface has been chipped away to make it look like the stone had weathered,” Knight said.
“It was common in the Middle Ages to bury people under the floors of churches and abbeys, so there’s a stone tablet on the floor of the tomb with names on it. The cracks you see in it aren’t real — they’re cut into the stone on purpose to make it look like it is broken up.”
The eclectic and the eccentric
Although Greek, Gothic and Egyptian revival styles influenced the design of many tombs in the city’s older cemeteries, a wide array of additional styles contribute to the appeal of the cemeteries, Knight said.
The Joseph A. Walker tomb is a Romanesque Revival beauty distinguished by rounded rather than pointed arches and a complex acanthus leaf design incised into the stone atop the columns.
Not far away stands a Moorish Revival tomb with Solomonic (corkscrew) columns and a quasi-onion dome: elsewhere are examples of the Art Deco and Moderne styles and even one with an Oriental touch.
“Styles aren’t the only aspects of tombs that evolved along with the city,” Knight said. “Materials evolved too.
“In the city’s oldest cemeteries like St. Louis 1 and 2, most tombs are brick, covered with lime wash because those materials were the most easily available to the early residents.
“But as they became able to import materials like granite, marble and sandstone, that’s when those materials started appearing in tombs.”
The Longshore tomb, completely covered in cast concrete tiles, serves as an example of how popular materials were adapted for funerary use.
Nearby, William H. Reynolds’ cast iron resting place drew Knight’s attention.
“Reynolds’ tomb is really eclectic and combines elements of a lot of styles, with its Solomonic columns and symbolic motifs, like the inverted torches and draped urns,” she said.
“But the most notable thing about it is that it is made of cast iron. It’s the only one I can think of in Metairie Cemetery, though there are more in other cemeteries.
“If you read the plaque near the base, it refers to Reynolds Iron Works, so it’s obvious why Reynolds would choose cast iron for his tomb rather than stone or masonry.”
Knight said that when intricately patterned cast iron became widely and affordably available in the second half of the 19th century, New Orleanians went wild for it.
“That’s when all the cast iron went up in the Quarter,” Knight explained. “People were ripping out the original wrought iron, which was much simpler, so they could be fashionable.”