What do we learn from Henry H. Kuehn’s Architects’ Gravesites (MIT Press), which was published earlier this year? This compendium, which describes more than 200 burial sites of prominent—and many not-so-prominent—American architects, does not necessarily cast new light on its subjects, because less than a dozen of these architects had the foresight (or the inclination) to design their own gravestones. Most of the grave markers were erected by descendants or admirers, in some cases years after their subject’s death. Many reveal nothing about the architects in question. Yet, as Paul Goldberger writes in the afterword, what most readers of this book will look for is “some kind of echo of the architect’s voice,” even if that echo is second or third hand.
Perhaps it’s poetic justice that deceased modernists have generally been commemorated in a minimalist fashion. Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) gets a plain dark slab with just his name and dates. Gordon Bunshaft’s headstone, designed by him, is equally stark. Eero Saarinen’s (1910-61) marker, said to be designed by his wife Aline, is only slightly more descriptive and includes the word “Architect.” Saarinen’s plaque is bronze, Mies’s slab is honed granite, and Bunshaft’s headstone looks like marble. I searched in vain for a concrete tombstone among the American modernists; it appears that the material is suitable only for the living. Nor did I find any note of levity among the gravesites, with one notable exception: the grave marker of that architectural outlier, Marcel Breuer (1902-81). A block of granite, which he brought back from a trip to Japan, contains the playful epitaph: “Here lies Breuer who broke his knee entirely of his own stupidity.”
Breuer’s quirky gravesite is next to his summer cottage in Wellfleet, Mass. Other architects buried nearby—or in—projects of their own design include William Strickland (1788-1854), who is interred in the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, and Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945), who designed the monumental gates of Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Ralph Adams Cram’s (1863-1944) grave is beside a rustic stone chapel he built in a forest glade in Sudbury, Mass. The deeply religious Cram used the building as a family chapel before he deeded it to a local church, specifying that it was to be the final resting place for himself and his wife. The graves have footstones as well as headstones, both of blue slate.
Kuehn discusses his book during a tour of architects' memorial sites at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago
Cram’s markers are rather plain. One might expect that architects of his generation, who did not necessarily believe that ornament was a crime, would have fancier memorials—and, indeed, some do. Stanford White’s (1853-1906) granite marker is topped by a graceful acroterion; so is the gravestone of Henry Bacon (1866-1924), the designer of the Lincoln Memorial. The headstone of William van Alen (1882-1954) of Chrysler Building fame is decorated by a cross in the form of a rosette. And then there is Cram’s longtime partner, Bertrand Grosvenor Goodhue (1869-1924). At his own request, Goodhue’s ashes were interred in the north transept of upper Manhattan’s Church of the Intercession, which he had designed. His epitaph reads: “This tomb is the token of affection of his friends. His great architectural creations that beautify the land and enrich civilization are his monuments.” Which echoes Christopher Wren’s famous epitaph: “Reader, if you seek his monument—look around you.”
Yet unlike Wren, who has a plain wall plaque in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Goodhue’s ashes are preserved in a Gothic-style wall tomb. The sculptor Lee Lawrie, who was a close friend and colleague, portrayed the architect lying on a catafalque, like a medieval knight. The recumbent figure, whose features Lawrie modeled on Goodhue’s death mask, stares up at a vaulted ceiling that contains a bas-relief representing his works, including the West Point Cadet Chapel, St. Bartholomew’s in New York, and the Nebraska State Capitol. Above them is a Latin quote from Samuel Johnson: “He touched nothing that he did not adorn.”
Grandiose? Over the top? Not really. The gifted Goodhue was a joyously errant spirit who roamed the architectural spectrum, from the Perpendicular Gothic of the Church of the Intercession to an exuberant fusion of Egyptian Revival and Art Deco in the Los Angeles Central Library. It seems to me that a knight’s tomb is a fitting memorial.
So is the red granite monument in the Princeton, N.J., cemetery that marks the final resting place of Michael Graves (1934-2015). The monument is in the form of a pedestal supporting a miniature building. Based on sketches that Graves was making at the time of his death, the building is not an actual project, yet it is immediately recognizable as belonging to the whimsical Gravesian universe, an imagined—and imaginary?—classical Mediterranean world.
There was nothing imaginary about Daniel Burnham’s (1846-1912) rough-and-tumble world, or about the boulder that marks his grave. A bronze plaque lists his name and dates and those of his wife, Margaret. The gravesite is a family plot that consists of a circle of similar boulders on a small island in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. Celebrated architects buried in family plots are generally not distinguished from their relatives, hence the gravestones of Burnham, H. H. Richardson (1838-86), Frank Furness (1839-1912), Charles McKim (1847-1909), Charles Adams Platt (1861-1933), Julia Morgan (1872-1957), and John Russell Pope (1874-1937) include no mention at all of their considerable architectural accomplishments. Nor does the disappointingly pedestrian tombstone of Louis Kahn (1901-74), which seems to have come straight out of a headstone catalog. No echoes here. A large number of prominent modernist architects lack gravesites altogether, having chosen to have their ashes scattered, including Walter Gropius (1883-1969), Eric Mendelsohn (1887-1953), Philip Johnson (1906-2005), and Paul Rudolph (1918-97).
Kuehn’s catalog includes the gravesites of two non-Americans: Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto. Le Corbusier’s (1887-1965) well-known burial place, designed by him and made of béton brut (he at least had the courage of his convictions), resembles a computer monitor, although its banality is offset by the haunting location, a hillside overlooking the spot in the Mediterranean where the great man drowned. Aalto’s (1898-1976) grave in Helsinki is something of a puzzle. Designed by his second wife, Elissa, it signifies his and his deceased architect-wife Aino’s profession by including the stone fragment of an Ionic column. While Aalto was classically-trained and began his career—as did so many of the early modernists—designing classical buildings, this nevertheless seems like an odd choice. Or maybe it’s simply an acknowledgment that in the distant future, this ancient device, not some abstract pattern, will continue to signify Architecture—and what else except posterity is a gravesite for?