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To See Classical Architecture, Head to Woodlawn Cemetery

“We think about cemeteries as places you go out of respect or appreciation for the dead, as a way to remember or get closure,” says Professor Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis (The Graduate Center, CUNY). But for 19th-century New Yorkers, cemeteries were just about the only source of green space in a developing urban sprawl. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, founded in 1838, was a popular weekend attraction for families and the city’s largest de facto public park at the time, later supplanted by the more easily accessible Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

For Macaulay-Lewis, Woodlawn Cemetery holds another appeal: classical architecture.

Her interest in the city’s classical and Egyptian architecture culminated in “Entombing Antiquity: A New Consideration of Classical and Egyptian Appropriation in the Funerary Architecture of Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City,” a chapter in her 2017 book Housing the New Romans: Architectural Reception and Classical Style in the Modern World.

Soon after it opened in December 1863, Woodlawn drew the patronage of hundreds of self-made millionaires, who commissioned opulent mausoleums designed by the era’s most eminent architects. “They wanted to create ways where they could live forever,” Macaulay-Lewis says. Classical and Egyptian styles were in vogue among the intelligentsia, signaling “cultural authority and prestige” and attesting to their economic, social, political, or artistic achievements.

Jay Gould, the railroad magnate and financier, bought a plot on the cemetery’s highest point, allowing it to “visually [dominate] the surrounding tombs and landscape.” Most elements of his tomb are Greek in style — one clear influence is the Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis — but other details, such as naturalistic landscaping, are “less overtly classical” and borrow from other historical motifs.

Just a 10-minute walk from the Woodlawn stop on the 4 train, the cemetery is still open to the public daily.

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Book Cover: 'Housing the New Romans: Architectural Reception and Classical Style in the Modern World' by Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis
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Housing the New Romans: Architectural Reception and Classical Style in the Modern World
Oxford University Press, 2017

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Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis (Professor, Liberal Studies)Profile

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The Graduate Center

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