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.

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.

jefferson memorial park

 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.


allegheny cemetary

Wildlife finds the “rural” nature of Allegheny Cemetery to its liking.


Allegheny Cemetery

It’s hard to imagine Butler Street in Lawrenceville being referred to as “rural.” But this very urban cityscape was once Pittsburgh’s countryside, and when city fathers went searching for a suitable location for a community cemetery in 1844, the 100-acre Bayard Farm on the outskirts of town seemed perfectly suited to the purpose. Now a beautiful and serene greenspace surrounded by busy city streets on all sides, Allegheny Cemetery is still recognized as part of the Rural Cemetery Movement.

That movement began with Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, which was the first “rural cemetery” in the nation when it was founded in 1831. The fashion for these abodes of the dead arose out of necessity. As space in urban churchyards was exhausted, larger parcels were required to accommodate the needs of growing population centers, Pittsburgh among them. In the rural cemeteries, landscaping was paramount, as designers strove for park-like settings. And as they evolved, indeed, such cemeteries served as burial grounds and places for public recreation; some even became tourist destinations.

Pittsburgh’s rolling hills and beautiful vistas across the Allegheny River provided William Falconer, a Scottish landscape architect who was the cemetery’s master planner and first superintendent, with a magnificent three-dimensional canvas upon which to sculpt Allegheny Cemetery. Recall, it was a farm at the time, so completely open to the view. But as trees were planted to create shaded groves, the canopy gradually closed in. Visitors can still catch a glimpse of the hills above Route 28 along the Allegheny River from the Butler Street side of the cemetery.

Following the rural-cemetery credo, Falconer incorporated ponds, paths and expansive lawns into his design to achieve the look and feel of a park. Greenhouses and a fountain were added later. All are still visible today. Subsequent purchases of adjacent properties eventually expanded the cemetery to three times its original size. The additions blend seamlessly with the original layout of the cemetery. Eighty of the 300 total acres currently remain undeveloped and are reserved for the future.

Testament to the institution’s strong leadership and tremendous staying power is Allegheny Cemetery’s remarkable recovery from the devastating microburst that struck Pittsburgh on May 31, 2002. Visitors today won’t even notice that many old trees were uprooted and hundreds more damaged, so determined were the trustees not to let a mere storm redefine this venerable landmark.

The main buildings of Allegheny Cemetery are all clustered near its perimeters and gates, leaving the interior of this majestic landscape and its sweeping views uninterrupted except by monuments and topography. Paths may seem maze-like at first, but you really can’t get lost for any length of time. All roads uphill lead to Penn Avenue and Bloomfield; all those downhill will eventually return you to Butler Street in Lawrenceville.

Stone bell towers anchor the cemetery’s entrances and welcome guests. The structure on Butler Street contains an 8,000-pound bell, crafted specifically for this cemetery and bell tower. In the past, the bell was rung to announce funerals. The Penn Avenue tower can be dramatically illuminated at night and houses a carillon.
Though an allée of enormous sugar-maple trees obstructs the view of the Penn Avenue tower from the cemetery side, it stands like a beacon when viewed through the bare branches in winter.

In the aggregate, Allegheny Cemetery is a microcosm of Pittsburgh’s natural beauty, with a compelling connection to its distinguished past. Beyond that, it’s simply a lovely and restful place to spend a summer afternoon. Pack a lunch, toss a stadium blanket over your shoulder and escape the hustle and bustle of life by enjoying the countryside in the city.


homewood cemetary

Occasional antique roses thrive in Homewood Cemetery, here, adorning one of its most picturesque monuments.


Homewood Cemetery

It only took 30 years for cemetery professionals to realize that rural cemeteries, with their carefully designed landscapes and natural plantings, were extremely time-consuming and costly to maintain. A backlash to these demands, combined with a labor shortage caused by the Civil War, sparked the Lawn-Park Cemetery movement in cemetery thinking. Homewood Cemetery, founded in Pittsburgh’s East End in 1878, is a fine example of that emergent style.

Lawn-park cemeteries were often smaller than the grand rural cemeteries that preceded them. At 200 acres, Homewood doesn’t seem small when you’re lost in it, but it’s relatively compact in comparison to Allegheny.

While green is still the predominant color, vast expanses of grass—rather than trees—dominate the landscape in many sections of Homewood. Families are discouraged from personalizing their plots by planting shrubs or hedges. Trees and other landscape features, such as ponds, are carefully sited and scattered sparsely around the grounds.

Rules regarding monument size and placement are more rigid here than at the Allegheny Cemetery. A glance at a map of Homewood reveals as formal a grid as rolling hills and winding roads permit. These guidelines make it somewhat easier for grounds crews with modern mowing equipment to navigate tightly spaced rows.

Still, it’s almost immediately clear upon entering the Forbes Avenue gates that certain attributes of Homewood’s landscape cried out for embellishment. At the base of the ravine before you lies a lovely spring-fed pond filled with waterlilies and surrounded by walking paths. It’s become shallower as silt was deposited over time, but future plans include dredging and deepening of the pond, which also will slow the growth of cattails around the shore. The placement of the pond may have been serendipitous, but it certainly does contribute a great deal to the arrival experience.
Given such a handsome backdrop, it’s not surprising that those charged with maintaining the landscape over the years yearned for variation—shade, too, perhaps—from the broad sweeps of lawn, especially if those superintendents were horticulturally inclined.

The cemetery’s leaders must have agreed, at least on occasion, because a 1938 request to the board of directors for 300 4-inch-caliper trees was approved. The trees cost an average of $12 apiece, for a total expenditure of $3,600. The trees were planted in the fall of that year, “since our rush activities of the spring make it impossible to carry out a spring tree planting program.”

Trees are an integral part of Homewood’s landscape today. Many venerable old specimens cast sufficient shade to make a stroll through the cemetery on a hot summer day quite pleasant. That’s where the likeness to a garden ends.
While attempts have been made to cultivate antique roses, beds of iris and lilies over the years, just a few of these flowers survive. Because of the painstaking trimming required to maintain them, all of the foliage has been removed from the old-ivy covered monuments as well. Still, some sturdy flowering shrubs remain—lilacs bloom faithfully in spring and PeeGee hydrangeas in August—which attests to just how “ironclad” some of these old-fashioned varieties really are.
But continue downhill into the heart of the cemetery, and winding roads will eventually lead you to a most extraordinary feature, all the more intriguing because it’s so unexpected in this lawn-park-style setting. A private family plot, which looks more like a garden, was installed about 10 years ago and encompasses nearly an acre of valuable cemetery real estate. A pond serves as its focal point, punctuated by enormous boulders.

The edge is approachable and inviting, softened by a grassy knoll and water-loving perennials. Raised berms planted with evergreens and ornamental grasses expose viewing points and separate visitors from passing cars.

Low maintenance? Hardly. So how did the concept pass muster with cemetery officials? No one can offer a definitive answer other than to say that the lawn-park rules under which Homewood Cemetery was founded have been relaxed over the years to allow for this more “user-friendly” and completely charming retreat. The space is quite a gem and serves as a private and peaceful place for contemplation.

In the heart of one of Pittsburgh’s busiest neighborhoods, Homewood Cemetery is a quiet and historic greenspace. It’s a satisfying mini getaway where you can enjoy the outdoors in a nicely landscaped setting. Sit for a spell in the shade of one of Homewood’s magnificent monuments. A glance at the family name thereon may reveal the illustrious company you keep.

Lindsay Bond Totten is the director of development and communications at Three Rivers Adoption Council. John Totten is a professional horticulturist and owner of a small landscape gardening business, which specializes in native plants.

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