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American Society of Landscape Architects


June 2004 Issue

The Silent Edge
Gertrude Jekyll's "wide wood path" informs a new burial ground at historic Mount Auburn Cemetery.

By Allen Freeman

The Slient Edge
Photo by Alan Ward

Maple Avenue is deceptively simple; that's its beauty. Sheltered by a deciduous canopy, enclosed by groves of redbud and birch, and edged by assorted ground covers, what appears to be a curved wooded path at the edge of a cemetery is itself a burial ground. Beneath this 300-foot-long arc of immaculate turf are more than 200 concrete lawn crypts, stacked two and three deep and laid lengthwise, end-to-end, in three parallel rows. When remains are to be interred, a section of turf is removed and a casket lowered into a crypt. Then the grass is restored, and the person is memorialized on one of the four granite columns at the path's edge or on a granite bench.

The work of Reed Hilderbrand Associates of Watertown, Massachusetts, and a 2003 ASLA Design Merit Award winner, Maple Avenue is a small, peaceful, and very precise landscape at an edge of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown and Cambridge. Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, the designer in charge of the project, recalls the moment he and his partner, Douglas Reed, ASLA, were first asked to study the landscape because, he says, "how to deal with death and grieving and how to commemorate individuals is one of the most potent questions [a landscape architect] can ever be asked."

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, architect Charles Bulfinch, sculptor Horatio Greenough, painter Winslow Homer, artist and illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, Polaroid inventor Edwin Land, visionary R. Buckminster Fuller, and suffragette-poet Julia Ward Howe are among the 93,000 people buried in Mount Auburn's knolls and dells and around its ponds. Founded in 1831 and named a National Historic Landmark last year, Mount Auburn was America's first garden cemetery. It preserves "a remarkably illustrative chronicle of American landscape design, attitudes toward death and commemoration, aesthetic and spiritual values, material culture, and changing technology," according to its 1975 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

But history and preservation don't equate with stasis at Mount Auburn. Maple Avenue, which replaced a section of superfluous carriageway, was a departure for the trustees of the Mount Auburn Cemetery Corporation. Maple Avenue represents only a small piece of the 175-acre cemetery, but its replication elsewhere would allow Mount Auburn to remain open for new burials.

A master plan by The Halverson Company that won a 1993 ASLA Honor Award led to recognition that Mount Auburn couldn't survive as merely a cultural institution. The plan recommended leaving the historical core alone and using the periphery for new interments. "We absolutely feel this is a dynamic landscape," says William C. Clendaniel, Mount Auburn president and treasurer. "The cemetery grew and changed from the day it started. The people who worked here, and the people who came here as customers, brought their contemporary values with them. Twenty years ago the cemetery management was trying to make everything look the same. Now we are slowly trying to accentuate stylistic differences. Mount Auburn's value to the nation is not as any particular landscape at any particular moment."

Reed Hilderbrand's work at Mount Auburn began in 1998 at Halcyon Lake, just downhill from Maple Avenue. Halverson's master plan had targeted the lake for renewal, and then a storm had taken down trees near a memorial to Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement. The cemetery trustees asked Hilderbrand and Reed to direct the lake's rehabilitation, and the managers of the Mother Church in Boston's Back Bay, owner of the Eddy plot, asked them to refurbish the landscape around the neoclassical Eddy memorial (see "Perennial Abstraction," Landscape Architecture, May). As that work was being carried out in 1999, cemetery trustees also asked Hilderbrand and Reed to suggest ways to allow for burials along a section of Maple Avenue that the cemetery had removed in 1997. A fence and a narrow strip of land separate Maple Avenue from Coolidge Avenue, the Cambridge city street along the cemetery's eastern edge.

"The trustees didn't say ten graves, and they didn't say a thousand," Hilderbrand recalls. "They asked how people could be buried there, and how many." One way to respond to the program, he says, was to create a landscape that would allow for a reflective experience and mourning even at the cemetery's edge next to a busy city street. Casket burial and cremated remains in the ground were the possibilities. The landscape architects presented three or four schemes, one of which involved four small terraces for casket burial along the path. But the trustees "kept pushing us to simplify—something we usually bring to the table anyway," Hilderbrand says. They told the designers that the solution could become a prototype for other sections in the cemetery; implicit all along was the cemetery's need to maximize its finite resource, its land.

"It was about this time that we thought about Gertrude Jekyll's little 'wide wood path,' as she called it, at Munstead Wood," Hilderbrand continues. He and Reed had separately visited Jekyll's home in West Surrey and photographed her crisscrossing woodland paths at the edge of the forest. But a photo from a hundred years ago was the image that stuck in their minds. The path at Munstead Wood was a carpet of lawn in the width they needed, and it had the enclosed quality they sought. The notion that visitors would walk over the graves, however, did seem somewhat radical for Mount Auburn.

One subtle characteristic of Maple Avenue, not derived from Munstead Wood, is its simple plan as a shallow arc. The most obvious reason for making the path curve is to avoid sight lines from one end to the other. But, as Hilderbrand explains, the arc also relates Maple Avenue to the shape of Halcyon Lake on the downslope side (the cemetery recently renamed the project Halcyon Garden), and it enabled the designers to contour the up-slope side, toward Coolidge Avenue, as a wedge sloping most steeply at its center. The resulting gradual incline of the slope at the path's ends yielded more room for stacking woodland vegetation as a shield against Coolidge Avenue. The need for such a shield resulted from a decision to maintain the chain-link fence along Coolidge instead of installing a privacy fence.

Wanting to quickly establish a wooded edge, Hilderbrand's design team specified a few new canopy trees, plus about 50 birches in three species (white, Himalayan, and Japanese whitespire), 50 eastern rosebuds, 500 deciduous and evergreen shrubs in eight or nine species, and thousands of ground-cover plants of three different kinds. They deliberately overplanted, realizing that the cemetery groundskeepers would need to thin the woodland as it matures. To channel visitors' attention toward Halcyon Lake, the landscape architects placed four new benches on selected points along the uphill side of the path, opposite breaks in downslope vegetation. The benches are constructed of Mountain Green granite and have inset seating surfaces of parallel teak boards laid lengthwise. The 18-foot-long benches function as retaining devices as well, and memorials can be inscribed on their top surfaces.

The prime spots for memorials, however, are four nine-and-a-half-foot- high granite monoliths. The cemetery trustees and staff galvanized around the concept of pillars as markers, Hilderbrand says, after he showed them photographs of Roman mile markers along the Appian Way. The Mount Auburn pillars, designed by architect/artist Wellington "Duke" Reiter in collaboration with the landscape architects, pre-sent flat faces toward the path for inscriptions, are rounded on their backsides, and taper toward their slanted, flat tops. They occur at the path's edge on the downslope side, offset from the benches.

One other construction completes Maple Avenue. At the north end, a retaining wall faced in the same Mountain Green granite rises almost perpendicular—slightly askew—to the path. The wall has no inscription. Rather, it implies that this is not an ordinary wide wood path.

Maple Avenue opened late in 2001. Since then, seven people have been buried there, and nine crypts have been reserved.

There's no wall at the south end, but something equally understated and appropriate may soon be placed there. When architect Benjamin Thompson died in August 2002 at the age of 84, Jane Thompson, his widow and long-time partner in their Boston design practice, selected a family plot at the south end, on the downhill side, and buried him there. "It seemed absolutely perfect at the end of the path," she said recently in a phone interview. She chose the plot not only because it overlooks what she considers the most picturesque section of the cemetery, but also because of the precise and skillful design of Maple Avenue and the fact that it makes useful a site that was wasted.

Jane Thompson is just now turning to the design of a memorial. She said she wants it to be a natural-looking plot and welcoming. "We want to put a bench at that corner, facing the lake," she said. "That would be very appropriate because Ben placed a lot of benches in his life."

Landscape architect: Reed Hilderbrand Associates, Inc., Watertown, Massachusetts (Gary R. Hilderbrand, FASLA, Douglas Reed, ASLA, Katherine Towson, Adrian Smith, ASLA, Jason Kentner, and Matthew Cunningham). Sculptor: Urban Instruments (Wellington Reiter and David Wiborg). Landscape contractor: Robert Hanss.

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