Streetscapes: Cemeteries were America’s first public parks and public landscape architecture

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Above: the gateway and chapel at Montefiore Cemetery in south Minneapolis.

Two Twin Cities Cemeteries document Minnesota’s waves of immigration and regional history.

By, FRANK EDGERTON MARTIN

Special to the Star Tribune, December 16, 2017

 

Cemeteries tell stories of social change, urban growth, and design history. Many pastoral 19th century cemeteries—such as Lakewood in Minneapolis and Oakland in St. Paul—are living narratives dating back to the founding of American landscape architecture and how cemeteries became the first public parks.

The first Jewish cemetery in Minneapolis grew out of a crisis. After the Civil War, German, Bohemian and Hungarian Jews began settling in Minneapolis. In the 1850s, a small Jewish community had already been established St. Paul—building synagogues, schools, and burial grounds. When a death occurred among the newer Minneapolis settlers, families had to travel across the Mississippi River by horse-drawn carriage for Jewish burial at Mt. Zion cemetery, north of the state capitol.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, senior rabbi at Temple Israel, tells the story of a winter night around 1875 when a Minneapolis funeral procession to St. Paul got stranded in a blizzard and the entire party (including the deceased) had to seek shelter overnight. Jewish tradition requires that burial occur as soon as possible after death; and because of the storm delay, the mourners had to wait another day.

A cemetery closer to home was clearly needed. Thus, in 1876, a group of Minneapolis Jews founded Montefiore Cemetery on Third Avenue and 42nd Street South. “It just shows the power of community to meet a need,” Zimmerman says. “That was two years before they even founded Temple Israel!”

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In 1888, Montefiore hired Septimus Burton to design an elegant Richardsonian Romanesque-style chapel and arched gateway. Built of red brick with a rusticated brownstone base and accents, Montefiori’s chapel reflected high-style gatehouse design from the time for estates, colleges, and cemeteries. In 1950, the rolling 4.5 acre cemetery was renamed Temple Israel Memorial Park.

The “Rural” Cemetery

In the decade before the Civil War, crowding in city churchyard cemeteries sparked a new “rural cemetery” movement focusing on scenic hilly country sites with long views and trees. In 1853, St. Paul civic leaders founded the non-denominational Oakland Cemetery on 40-acres of rolling oak woodlands just north of today’s state capitol. A year later, they developed the first ten acres in a geometric and formal layout typical of the time.

 

Monuments set amid Oakland's oak woods

Oakland’s historic pastoral landscape expresses the topography and has become an urban arboretum for hundreds of mature trees.  

In the winter of 1872, landscape architect Horace Cleveland visited the Twin Cities to promote a transformative vision for new cities on the frontier—arguing that gridded and ornamental landscapes were unsuited for the open landscapes and progressive spirit of the Midwest. Rather than mimicking the formal public spaces of Europe, new cities, parks, and cemeteries should become organic expressions of midwestern ecology. Cities should be planned at a regional scale with parkways following topography and parks spread out along rivers and sited in hilly areas and ravines.

With their formal ten-acre landscape nearly filled up, Oakland’s trustees heard the message and awarded Cleveland his first Minnesota commission to create a master plan for the rest of their land—by then totaling 80-acres.

Bob Shoenrock at Oakland Cemetery

Robert Schoenrock at Oakland Cemetery. His family has run a monument business across Jackson Street from the Cemetery for four generations. Like his father, Schoenrock serves as the Cemetery’s Director. 

“Horace Cleveland absolutely hated straight lines,” says Oakland’s Director, Robert Shoenrock. Cleveland’s original site plan, now archived at the Minnesota Historical Society, called for a rolling landscape with lanes curving along the topography and leading through a series of outdoor rooms framed by tree canopies. Over the next 25 years, Cleveland would go on to design the renowned park systems of the Twin Cities based on these principles—at a much larger scale.

New Generations

During the 19th century, Oakland Cemetery became the burial place for the city’s elite including the state’s first governors Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey, senators, and leading families such as the Driscolls, Wilders, and the Weyerhausers. They built impressive marble monuments that stand out today under Oakland’s dense canopy of oaks, basswoods, and maples. There are many spots where the surrounding neighborhoods completely disappear.

Although many cemeteries like Oakland appear natural, they are intentionally-designed landscapes. Preserving their character requires long-term management of roads, iron fences, urns, and tree plantings. In the 1960s and 70s, these features at Oakland were threatened as new burials and cemetery maintenance declined. Fortunately, in the 1980s, Hmong families brought new revenue and life to Oakland by purchasing hundreds of lots each year.

Oakland's new generation of Hmong graves

Reflecting Minnesota’s recent immigrants, Oakland Cemetery now has hundreds of Hmong burials and tells a history of the “Secret War” in Laos.

Shoenrock says that today, dozens of Hmong families visit the graves of family members every weekend, leaving food for the deceased having a family picnics of their own. Every Monday, Oakland’s grounds crews dutifully gather up these offerings before they spoil or blow away. The newer gravestones are etched with portraits of the deceased—some of whom were prominent generals in the “Secret War” in Laos supported by the US. There was also an area set aside for African American, Civil War veterans, and the city’s early firefighters. 70,000 people buried at Oakland today—and its diversity will continue to grow.

The Firefighters Memorial at Oakland Cemetery

The Firefighter’s Memorial at Oakland Cemetery

Although just five acres in size, Temple Israel’s Memorial Garden is a living cultural landscape in the city. Rabbi Zimmerman notes that, “every year we take our 7th graders there to study Jewish burial traditions, the inscriptions on the stones, and the Temple’s history.”

Now engulfed by urban growth, such older rural cemeteries bridge the past and future with headstone birthdates dating to the 18th century and reserves of plots for coming generations. Looking ahead, Rabbi Zimmerman say she recently purchased two plots at Temple Israel’s Memorial Garden. “I gave them to myself as a present for my 50th birthday,” she happily explains.

All photos by Frank Edgerton Martin

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