MAGE FROM ‘HISTORY OF THE FIRE DEPARTMENT OF NEW ORLEANS’
Although there’s speculation that a horizontal lintel once joined the Egyptian-style pylons at the entrance to Cypress Grove Cemetery, a print published 1895’s ‘History of the Fire Department of New Orleans’ – and which preservationist Leonard V. Huber said dates to 1855 – shows it without the lintel.
IMAGE FROM ‘HISTORY OF THE FIRE DEPARTMENT OF NEW ORLEANS’
Maybe those Egyptian pharaohs were on to something.
You don’t have to be Indiana Jones to know they were consumed with the idea of eternal life. And if enduring influence after one’s years have passed counts as immortality, they’ve certainly found a measure of it. For proof, one need look no further than the Egyptian Revival architecture that exists today in New Orleans, prominent examples of which I’ve covered in two previous recent columns, most notably the old Custom House on Canal Street and the former 6th Precinct police station on Rousseau Street.
But there’s more, including one dating to 1840 that, while not as ornate as other examples, is still influencing architects today. It’s the tower gate structure to Cypress Grove Cemetery, which thousands of motorists zip past every day at Canal Street and City Park Avenue.
The cemetery was founded in 1840 by the Firemen’s Charitable Association, thanks to a bequest by local merchant Stephen Henderson — although, despite a common early misconception, anyone could be buried there, not just firefighters, with proceeds benefiting the association.
Designed by Louisiana Deputy Surveyor General Frederick Wilkinson, it’s an early local example of the rural cemetery movement, which saw cemeteries being planned and designed to exude a parklike serenity, as compared with the crowded, shoulder-to-shoulder aesthetic of such urban burial grounds as St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
“The rapid growth of our city has already encroached upon the tombs of its fathers, and the sacred relics of the dead have been compelled to give way to the cold and selfish policy of speculators; and the intrusion of business,” read an 1840 report by the Firemen's Charitable Association. “And the solemnity of the graveyard is disturbed by the discordant shouts of merriment, and the baleful proximity of the dissolute.”
Although it’s located on the Metairie Ridge, which is high enough to allow for below-ground burial, the new cemetery would continue the aboveground burial tradition that was in vogue at the time — and which lends New Orleans’ cemeteries their distinct “city of the dead” feel.
To set a proper tone, Wilkinson designed a massive entryway highlighted by a central iron gate flanked by two towering pylons, each crowned with deep, Egyptian-style cavetto cornices.
An early sketch shows a lintel connecting the pylons, although at least one other early sketch shows it without the lintel, so it’s unclear if it was ever actually constructed.
If it wasn’t, it was likely intended at some point given that the rest of the gate structure is almost identical to that at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the lintel for which is adorned with a winged disc, typical of Egyptian Revival architecture.
In both cases, the central gate is flanked by smaller side gates, which are in turn flanked by small buildings. In the case of Cypress Grove, one of the side structures was built to serve as a porter’s lodge, to help safeguard against grave robbers, and the other was to be a “dead house” for the temporary housing of corpses before burial. According to an ad published in February 1840 soliciting proposals to build the Cypress Grove gate, the structures themselves were to be made of brick but “plastered and painted to imitate Egyptian Marble.”
For 181 years, it has stood as intended, “suggesting a triumphal passage from one world to the next,” as the Society of Architectural Historians describes it on its website.
But its story isn’t all about send-offs and goodbyes. There’s inspiration in those gates, too.
Not long ago, the Firemen’s Charitable and Benevolent Association of today decided to construct an office building inside Greenwood Cemetery, which the association owns and which is right across City Park Avenue from Cypress Grove.
To do the job, the group reached out to the local firm Lachin Architects, which has helped the association maintain and preserve the Cypress Grove gates over the years.
Taking inspiration from the gates, a team from Lachin — led by project architect Michael Lachin and designer Peter Fortier — came up with one of the city’s newest examples of Egyptian Revival architecture. Completed in 2017 at 5190 Canal Blvd., the two-story structure features Egyptian-styled battered pylons at each of its four corners. Each pylon is topped with a characteristic cavetto cornice. Even more prominent are the twin central columns framing the entrance, each of which boasts a papyrus capital on top. It might not be exactly what the pharaohs had envisioned, but then, a touch of immortality is certainly better than none at all.
Know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: The Times-Picayune archives; “Landmarks of New Orleans,” by Leonard V. Huber; “History of the Fire Department of New Orleans,” edited by Thomas O’Connor; Society of Architectural Historians; Lachin Architects.
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