Quiet Spaces, Green Oasis
Although these garden spots are the abodes of the deceased, cemeteries also serve as destinations for those among the living who seek peace, quiet and natural beauty. Come touch the green, green grass of Jefferson Memorial Park and the Homewood and Allegheny cemeteries.
A cutleaf Japanese maple displays the first signs of autumn.
Photos by John Totten
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In a place where you’d least expect a glorious garden experience, there are three historic cemeteries with fascinating stories to tell. The cemeteries offer soothing foliage, wide-open vistas and a gentle respite from the congestion of life in the city or in the suburbs. Each commandeers vast expanses of some valuable real estate, which can be enjoyed while gates are open during daylight and early evening hours. Escape and explore these lovely landmarks and their gorgeous landscapes.
The Thomas Jefferson Mausoleum serves as the magnificent centerpiece of Jefferson Memorial Park.
Jefferson Memorial Park
Both religious and secular symbols offer families a personal choice of resting places at Jefferson Memorial Park, located in the South Hills suburb of Pleasant Hills. Taking in the lovely view from a vantage point near the entrance, it seems appropriate that the sections of this beautifully landscaped cemetery are referred to as “gardens” rather than by numbers. St. John the Baptist features are as prominent as those of Thomas Jefferson, with almost as much space devoted to liberty and country (Garden of Freedom) as to faith (Garden of Devotion).
Because the cemetery is relatively young—by cemetery standards—families can still select almost any garden they wish for interment. What they cannot choose is an upright headstone or monument to bear the family name.
In keeping with the vision of founder Harry Neel, Jefferson Memorial looks and feels more like a serene park than a cemetery. On crystal-clear days in autumn, everything looks green except the changing leaves. All grave markers are hidden in plain sight, cast in bronze and lying level with the ground.
Families whose loved ones are buried here obviously embrace the founder’s philosophy, for the integrity of this verdant landscape is virtually uninterrupted by bouquets, wreaths or ornaments of any kind—other than the sculptures, ponds, hedges and plantings that were carefully planned and placed. During a recent stroll, I did spot the reverent placement of a Terrible Towel over one of the bronze plaques, although I’m sure the young man seated nearby planned to take it with him when he left.
Founded in 1929, Jefferson Memorial is still owned and operated by the Neel family. But the Neels’ ties to this property date back to 1785 when Harry Neel’s great-grandfather purchased the land along with the log cabin that occupied it. The reconstructed cabin is tucked into a shaded knoll near the eastern edge of the cemetery, known as Beam’s Hill, which is named for the pioneer family that built the cabin and settled there in 1780.
The name of the memorial park was inspired as much by Mr. Neel’s admiration for Thomas Jefferson as by the physical location of the property—at that time, Jefferson Township.
While the co-mingling of history and faith may seem somewhat incongruous in this day of separation of church and state, the two blend almost seamlessly across the sweeping vistas. Other than the occasional meandering access road, no visible boundaries separate the gardens, so it’s impossible to identify exactly where one ends and its neighbor begins.
Sometimes natural features and biblical themes coalesce, as at the Garden of the Well. The property is blessed with a clear, sweet-water spring (perhaps the reason the Beams settled here), which bubbles up out of the ground. It’s captured in a circular pool and surrounded by a shady stone terrace. Statues of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well augment the peaceful scene.
As it exits the pool, the water is diverted underground, reappearing in other vignettes throughout the cemetery by using the land’s topography to coax maximum effect from this wonderful natural resource.
Though God, country and nature clearly serve as the points of Jefferson Memorial Park’s philosophical compass, there’s also evidence throughout that Mr. Neel’s love for Pittsburgh plays a significant role, too. Relics from the city’s earlier days feature prominently in the gardens and landscape. Magnificent 30-ton Greek Revival columns were saved from the Bank of Pittsburgh on Fourth Avenue when the building was demolished in 1940. These massive architectural features were later transported at considerable expense from downtown to the cemetery, where they were incorporated into the imposing Thomas Jefferson Mausoleum, which is the secular centerpiece of the Jefferson Memorial.
Elsewhere on the grounds are enormous pillars salvaged from a hospital in Pittsburgh. An elegant limestone staircase from an estate in Sewickley helps visitors negotiate the gentle grade change in the Presidential Court, where a statue of George Washington presides.
While these and other artifacts are fascinating and add a special dimension to the landscape, much of Jefferson Memorial Park’s inherent beauty is attributable to its trees. The grounds could easily serve as an outdoor classroom for horticulture students studying taxonomy. The staff’s commitment to planting trees is noticeable everywhere, with a special emphasis on evergreens. The collection of unusual conifers surpasses the one I remember being quizzed on at the University of Michigan’s arboretum.
Fine examples of umbrella pine and lacebark pine, both relatively rare in Pittsburgh, grow on the grounds. Branches of tightly spaced dwarf conifers weave evergreen tapestries in several locations. Many varieties of firs and spruces, weeping white pines, bald cypress, and dawn redwood add to the exceptional collection. If you love trees, it’s worth a stroll in any season to try to pick out your favorites or to become acquainted with new ones.
Jefferson Memorial Park is a destination well worth seeking out, whether or not a loved one is buried there. With a design that’s deeply rooted in nature and guided equally by history and faith, the landscape is immensely appealing on many levels. Even sports fans will find something to celebrate as they search for the sacred patch of ground dedicated to Honus Wagner, one of Pittsburgh’s greatest baseball players of all time. (Hint: Start your search for his plaque in the Garden of the Cross.)
With a total of 320 acres available, only half of which have been developed, look for many new trees and gardens in the decades—and centuries—yet to come.