Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A “Stranger’s Guide” to Philadelphia’s Woodlands Cemetery

This winter in Philadelphia we’ve had an unusually high number of “snow events,” as the weathernauts have come to call them. Luckily, none of them dropped more than a few inches of snow. I’ve long been a proponent of photographing cemeteries under duress (mine, as well as theirs), so when weather hits, it becomes a “graveyard event” for me. One weekend in late January was a prime example. A small amount of snow was predicted for Friday night, and although it was expected to be colder than a well-digger’s butt on Saturday morning, I planned to head out to West Philly’s Woodlands Cemetery.

On the morning in question as I was getting ready to leave my house in South Philly, I checked the conditions and saw that about an inch had fallen and it was not actively snowing. There would be a light coating on the tombstones and I didn’t have to shoot through falling snow. Decent conditions - light dry snow, not enough to shovel or even sweep from around my house. I threw some chemical hand warmers in with my camera gear and got ready to make the twenty-minute drive to the Woodlands.

Looking out my back door, I was reminded of my stolen snow shovel from a few years back.  One wintery Friday evening it was snowing like a mother, so our friend Tom asked to stay the night. As we sat inside holed up and ordering Chinese food, Tom thought he saw someone through the glass at our back door. I figured since there really wasn’t anything worth stealing back there I didn’t even get up to look. Next morning, I was chagrined to find my snow shovel gone – with fourteen inches of snow to shovel! I closely scrutinized the hardware toted by the vagrants who came to my front door over the next few hours asking for twenty dollars to shovel my walks. Could anyone possibly have the nerve to steal my shovel and then try to charge me to shovel my walk with it? I ended up paying two neighbor kids to do the work.
Headstone, Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

But to the subject at hand: I have not spent a lot of time at the Woodlands in recent years, but I figured I should reacquaint myself with its charms as it will be one of three subjects this fall in a photography exhibit in which I will be a participant. In September and October of 2013, I along with two photographer friends will be exhibiting work at the Philadelphia Free Library (Benjamin Franklin Parkway) on “Historic Cemeteries of Philadelphia.” The exhibit will feature predominantly Laurel Hill, Woodlands, and Mount Moriah cemeteries.

As it happens, each of us had long ago and for various reasons chosen one of these cemeteries on which to concentrate, so we each have many images of these institutions spanning a ten-year period. Frank Rausch (who literally lives in Laurel Hill Cemetery), Robert Reinhardt (who has done extensive photography and research in the cemeteries of Scotland), and Ed Snyder (starring as himself), will be presenting their photography of Laurel Hill, Woodlands, and Mount Moriah, respectively.

From the photos I’ve sprinkled throughout this article, you can see that I was rather taken with the light covering of snow on everything. Rather than cover up, it seemed to accentuate small details, which I have in the past, missed. Of course, the last two times I was here it was actively snowing, so I didn’t walk around as much. From the lettering on headstones to small carvings such as the boat propeller above, the eye is drawn more to the shapes of things than their intended meaning. The geometric lines of crosses and crypt covers jump out at you, begging to be photographed. A dusting of snow on the cold shoulders of these Victorian mourning statues make them appear far more alone in their grief.

Runners at the Woodlands
It’s odd that the first things you see at the Woodlands after passing through its ornate hourglass gates are joggers, runners, dog walkers, dog runners, and track teams working out. It’s a good thing there are so many well-kept paved roads here, otherwise paths would be worn into the grass! Of the three cemeteries I mentioned, Woodlands is by far the most visited for the purpose of maintaining people's health! Due to its location in Philadelphia’s University City district, and the fact that it is very safe and well-maintained, people treat it as a getaway from the city - a park, a place to play. Oddly, this was exactly the intent of the designers and architects of the Victorian rural or “garden” cemetery, that it be a bucolic getaway from the noisy city, a place for people to enjoy themselves.
The trees that adorn the cemetery are some of them of majestic growth, leading to the scenery and the grounds the most impressive effect.  The vistas beneath the foliage, or between the separated groves, conduct the eye to distant prospects, varied on every hand, and by every change of position,; there, the spires and public buildings of the city are beheld; here, the windings of the Schuylkill [River]; and more distant, the bright surface of the Delaware [River] and the blue hills of New Jersey skirt the horizon; while flowers and shrubs are scattered plenteously around, shedding a cheery influence in shaded lawns, or among the tombs. All that taste can suggest or science demand, consistently with the solemn purpose of the place, has been added to the superior advantages already possessed.
– From "The Stranger’s Guide in Philadelphia …," 1852.

Woodlands' entrance gate
The above description of the Woodlands is excerpted from an odd 1852 travel guide of sorts, “The Stranger’s Guide in Philadelphia and its Environs: Including Laurel Hill, Woodlands, Monument, Odd Fellows, and GlenwoodCemeteries: with Illustrations.” I say odd because it’s  author is “anonymous” and various cemeteries are actually named in the title. Truly, in Victorian times, a city’s garden cemeteries were gems worth boasting about. While you really can’t see the rivers anymore due to the train tracks and power plants, nor the distant “blue hills of New Jersey,” the passage above makes you wonder what lovely Woodlands Cemetery looked like in 1854. No doubt the grounds themselves were at least as beautiful as they are today.

References and Further Investigation:
The Woodlands Cemetery website
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