A Final Resting Place and Its Afterlife: Woodlawn Cemetery Is Transforming Into a Cultural Institution…But for Now, Bring Out Your Dead

When Woodlawn was established in 1863, its owners weren’t sure if the idea of a cemetery would take off. They used Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, which is 25 years older and still one of Woodlawn’s major competitors, as a cautionary tale: Green-Wood developed a large chunk of its land into grave sites all at once and went millions of dollars into debt; Woodlawn took a more scattered approach, which led to its metropolitan-like development.

In the late 1800s, cemeteries were tourist attractions because of their unprecedented rural landscapes and giant concrete monuments, which resembled chapels or houses and were often as expensive as a large apartment in Manhattan. As we drove past the Coster mausoleum, Ms. Olsen said casually that it was “one of our lawsuit mausoleums.”

Cornelia Coster, who died April 1, 1894, left her entire $400,000 estate to Woodlawn for the purchase of a plot of land and the construction of a mausoleum for her, her husband—who died some years before her—and her parents. Her will was executed the night before she died and, in 1903, it was contested by her relative Charles A. Sands on behalf of his mother, Elizabeth Sands, the half-sister of Ms. Coster’s father. The charge was that Ms. Coster was of an unsound mind when she wrote the will—she was declared insane by the court in 1892, though the ruling was retracted one year later. Predictably, though perhaps unfortunately for her relatives, Ms. Coster’s wishes prevailed.

Family feuds aside, it’s because people put so much money into their monuments that Woodlawn has attracted the attention of architectural scholars and curators. Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, curator of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum who is helping organize Woodlawn’s 150th anniversary exhibition, went out to the cemetery a few years ago hunting for stained glass windows by the famed but short-lived Tiffany Studios. She discovered that her mother-in-law, who is buried in a family plot at Woodlawn, has Tiffany stained glass inside her own mausoleum and that one design drawing that was in the Met’s collection was actually a plan for a window of the Kate A. Harbeck mausoleum. That structure, designed by architects John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, is 90 feet high—larger than most rural churches (or, certainly, New York apartments).

One of the problems with organizing an exhibition around an active cemetery is that it’s still a kind of sacred ground, and very personal for people. Charles Warren, an architect who is co-curating the exhibition at Columbia, said they are working on convincing families to loan things like stained glass while the objects are in the process of restoration.

“It’s a great idea, but it’s a difficult one,” he said. “There are 300,000 people buried there. Any one person can cooperate or not. The big mausoleums—they’re buildings. They’re chapels. Some of them have astonishing interiors and stained glass. Making them available to the public can be a sensitive thing. It has to be handled very carefully.”

Mr. Warren was also involved in getting the Woodlawn archives to Columbia’s Avery Library, one of the great fine arts and architectural archives in the world. He was researching a book and digging through the dusty archives, where, he said, “Roll after roll of remarkable drawings were being pulled off of these old shelves. It worried me.” He called Janet Parks at Avery.

“I think I went there thinking, ‘So what is it you want to show me here?’” Ms. Parks said. “But then I saw this incredible, unbroken record.”

It is, for the time being anyway, the largest collection Avery has ever accepted. Woodlawn saved everything, from receipts for concrete to scribbles on paper scraps doing out the math for some measurement, to extensive blueprints that are works of art in and of themselves. One particularly good find I made when I looked at the archives was this note about the Harbeck mausoleum from 1919, written on Woodlawn letterhead: “Dear sir, the mausoleum of Mrs. Harbeck was struck by lightning on Saturday … the filial with its base is about 10 feet high. This was moved horizontally several inches and some of the caved projections broken off and thrown to the ground … Apparently no damage has been done to the interior.”

Ms. Olsen said she had no idea what kind of treasure trove she had been sitting on, but she also said, ultimately, the archives are so extensive because of laziness. When Woodlawn’s Manhattan office space closed in 1982, its entire contents were stashed in the cemetery basement—no one felt like sorting anything out.

It’s rare for a functioning cemetery to donate its records, but Woodlawn straddles a delicate line between burial ground and the embrace of an interested public. For now, though, there’s still plenty of space available. Land sells for $220 per square foot. You could buy an empty mausoleum designed by John Russell Pope (he did the Jefferson Memorial) for about $4 million. Or a casket burial, which starts at $7,100. Or not. Ms. Olsen mentioned that a lot of people don’t reserve a space for themselves in a cemetery while they are still alive. They’re superstitious.