Glenwood Cemetery- Nature, History, Architecture

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

Upon entering the gates of Glenwood Cemetery, I became immediately aware of the transition from a busy city street to a serene, picturesque garden landscape. I was greeted by chirping birds and the sound of silence, and the intermittent sound of a lawn mower reminding me this is very much a living, breathing place, that requires upkeep and that sees an average of 500+ leisure visitors per week.

photo credit: 365thingsinhouston.com - One of many meandering paths inside Glenwood


Winding paths, open green spaces and slopping terrain are the hallmark of this garden cemetery. It is a picturesque memorial landscape and one of Houston's most enchanting hidden gems. I was excited to be here and ready to wander without a map, ready to simply immerse myself in a little bit of Houston history and a new cultural experience.


In 1912, The Standard History of Houston described Glenwood as the "principal" cemetery in the city: "Glenwood combines the beauty of the wildwood with the charm of the tropical and semitropical plants and flowers that the climate permits to flourish in great beauty and abundance....wealth moved by grief, has uttered its sorrow in many costly marbles and towering shafts, and many a marble angel with drooping wings broods over the resting places of the dead."

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Panoramic view of downtown Houston's skyline


Glenwood Cemetery was established in 1871 on the banks of Buffalo Bayou by English nurseryman Alfred Whitaker, who originally arrived to Houston in 1858 to open a mercantile business. Over the years, it underwent several transformations including bankruptcy in 1896 when it was still operating as a private for-profit cemetery. In1904 it went into receivership when district courts released it back to lot owners as a cemetery association and it was reorganized as a non-profit body.


Today, it is listed as a historic cemetery and its reputation lies not only in its landscaping beauty but in the fact that it is the final resting place of many notable Houstonians and historical figures. In 1999 the Glenwood Cemetery Historic Preservation Foundation (GCHPF) was established to protect, preserve and enhance the beauty and historical integrity of the place. In that year, it also acquired the adjacent Washington Cemetery, and It has grown from the original 54 acres into an 88 acre property, with over 24,000 internments. It is home to a beautiful assortment of trees (over 5000), flowers, shrubbery, wildlife and historic statuary.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- An example of majestic trees and canopies protecting family plots- This one is the Cooley family plot, which includes Dr. Denton A. Cooley, notable Houston cardio-thoracic surgeon most famous for performing the first heart transplant in the U.S in1968.


The Rural Garden Cemetery Movement

Glenwood Cemetery was born out of the 19th century Rural Cemetery Movement, a prevailing trend taking place on the East Coast of America. In the 1820s, America's cities were dense and polluted and, traditional churchyard cemeteries were becoming overcrowded, unhygienic and carriers of disease (typhoid, yellow fever, cholera). Burials were very close together and often on top of each other making the situation particularly precarious in times of flooding and soil erosion. As the 19th century progressed, towns grew, becoming cities, and for reasons of health and overcrowding, graveyards began to be located outside of population centers, no longer on church grounds. These cemeteries spawned the "Rural Cemetery Movement" beginning in 1831with Mount Auburn in Boston, Laurel Hill in Philadelphia (1836), Green Wood in Brooklyn (1838), and countless others from Maine to Wisconsin. They differed from churchyard burial plots in their overall design concept, eschewing the "gridded, block-like allotments separated by narrow walkways" (Stephen Fox-Architectural Historian) in favor of the horticultural, scenic landscape design.

photo credit: mountauburn.org Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA


The rural cemetery was designed with a romantic vision, based on English landscape design, and the notion of the pastoral ideal. Nature was idealized and sought out as a refuge from the crowded cities, and , cemeteries were designed to provide solitude, sanctuary, quiet, adornment and beauty. Rolling hills, gently curving paths, attention to horticulture and picturesque vistas became the hallmark of these new cemeteries ( Houston's Silent Garden- Suzanne Turner & Joanne Seale Wilson).

photo credit: waddesdon.org.uk A view of Waddesdon Manor garden in Hertforshire, U.K, which was an example of a victorian landscape design that influenced early rural garden cemetery design in America


These green spaces became destinations on Sundays for strolls, picnics, family fun, shooting, hunting and carriage racing. Indeed they heralded the advent of city parks which did not yet exist until Central Park in New York City, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, emerged as a direct outgrowth of these garden cemeteries.


On August 25, 1885 The Galveston Daily News reported that "Glenwood is becoming a great Sunday resort...throngs of people visit the sacred enclosure during the whole of Sunday. Visitors are astonished at the exceeding taste displayed in the arrangement of lots and floral decorations."

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Vista showing Glenwood's famous Live Oak

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Little Hillside in the southwest corner of Glenwood


These rural parks became cultural centers and were seen as major urban amenities, according to Keith Eggener, architectural historian and author of "Cemeteries", and they morphed into liminal spaces, joining together the disparate states of life and death, nature and culture.


Monuments and grave markers

David Sloane notes in "The Last Great Necessity", grave monuments 'were created by a generation of American and European sculptors imitating the grand art of the salons and the monuments themselves became part of the attraction of the picturesque cemeteries'. In the 19th century, before the advent of the Art Museum, rural cemetery gardens were the first place where many people were able to view sculpture and art. A visit to Glenwood represents a journey through artistic tradition as well as through Houston's history. Here we see funerary art spanning the spectrum from the utmost simplicity to the ornate and imposing grandeur.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- example of utmost simplicity....

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- And here is one of great grandeur made from granite- This mausoleum is one of only six in Glenwood. The figure crowning the top holds a bouquet of lilies, symbol of purity and resurrection.


Glenwood contains the largest collection of late 19th century sculpture in the Houston area, including neoclassical, Egyptian, and gothic models. They range from realistic depictions of nature to a more abstracted and stylized approach to the natural elements.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- A rustic cross with a bird perched on top. Nature and cemetery in co-existence.


A special feature of Glenwood is the widespread use of the cradle tombs to outline individual graves. This style of grave began to appear in American cemeteries in the late 1800s and became popular during the civil war, but by the 1920s they were disappearing. This style of grave, despite its name, was used for adults as well as children.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi


Another noticeable feature of Glenwood's early graves is the preservation of a large number of historic marble and granite lot enclosures. In other cemeteries most of these were removed long ago for ease of maintenance. The use of new brick was strictly prohibited in the historic sections of the grounds and Glenwood began requiring "old brick" in the 1960s as building material in newer sections. By the 1970s use of any variety of brick was allowed and this practice continues today.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- area showing brick enclosure


There are a variety of visual characters throughout Glenwood. Some areas have the unified feeling of outdoor rooms while older sections are characterized by their curved roads and lots outlined with stone borders.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- This plot designed for the Sharp family by landscape architect Ruth London uses enclosing columns, flights of stairs, and a pair of benches to create a sense of an outdoor room. The statue of the girl includes her holding a sun dial with the Latin inscription "Perenis Amor" (Love is forever)

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Sweeping curves and open spaces

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Glenwood has 56 draped and undraped urns, 98 obelisks, 30 columns (a draped one seen above), more than 50 angels and other types of female mourners, and at least 5 "Gates of Heaven" monuments.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- The tallest obelisk in Glenwood, measuring 44 feet, belongs to James Henderson (1814-1880) in 1929- He was the shortest serving Texas Governor: A mere 28 days in 1853 until he resigned to become a member of the United States Congress..


By 1868, the advances in transcontinental shipping and rail transportation made imported sculpture and slabs of marble and granite more accessible. These were being imported from New Orleans, New York and Italy. White marble was favored for its ease of carving and symbol of purity. By the end of the 19th century, granite began to replace marble as the preferred material for cemetery monuments. It was more readily available and durable than marble but less easy to carve, hence the bulkier, larger-than-life resultant sculptures.


Only two antique cast-iron fences remain in Glenwood, after they were discouraged with the rise in labor cost resulting in fewer workers and shortened work weeks.

photo credit- Houston's Silent Garden- Weems Family Plot


There are more than fifty angels in Glenwood. Some are referred to as weepers and became popular as tomb markers between 1850-1900. Some were sculpted to order but most were stock figures imported from Italy.

Photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- The Hill family monument imitates a sculpture famous in Europe. This type of angel is referred to as the Angel of Grief after William Wetmore Story's statue he designed for his wife's grave in 1894 at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. This dramatic, life-size winged figure speaks more of the pain of those left behind by appearing collapsed, weeping and draped over the tomb.


Cherubic angels adorned the graves of children- Infant mortality in the 19th century was high due to epidemics and poor sanitation-

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi


Markers and monuments also reflected the role of fraternal and civic organizations, such as the Woodmen of the World, Texas Woman's Press Association, Volunteer Department of Houston, among others.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Woodmen of the World monuments are usually "treestones"- markers resembling trees or parts of cut log- They bear the motto " Dum Tacet Clamat" (Though silent, he speaks)

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Dum Tacet Clamat

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Here's a more extravagant version of the treestone monument for Alexander Sessums (1830-1873) and his wife Mary Runnels Sessums (1835-1884). Morning glories symbolize resurrection, ivy is for immortality, roses are in memory of Mary and oak leaves and acorns commemorate Alexander. New branches sprouting from the trunk may be a reference to their son. I particularly like the juxtaposition of the monument with the enormous red cedar.


Another type of monument found at Glenwood is the table tomb, an ancient style consisting of a tablet supported on legs or columns.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Produced by the Teich Moument Works for Sarah M. Campbell (d.1912). Teich Monument Works were important early monument makers in Llano, Texas.


The modernist movement gave way to walls and lawns rather than monuments.

photo credit: pinterest.com- Howard R. Hughes Sr. (1869-1924) memorial designed by William Ward Watkins (1886-1952), architecture professor at Rice University, in 1935, influenced by a small gold watch fob worn by Howard Hughes Sr. that resembled a golden saxophone- Watkins substituted the musical instrument with Gabriel's horn which the archangel Gabriel would sound on Judgment Day. It is the most visited memorial in Glenwood.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Here we see graves flush with the lawn with a backdrop of classical columns against the Houston skyline overlooking buffalo Bayou. This is the monument for Samuel Fain Carter (1857-1928), lumberman and businessman. Designed by Rice University architecture professor William Ward Watkins (1886-1952) who also designed the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. This fourteen-columned granite pergola monument was designed in 1928.


Modernist Movement

Markers and monuments underwent change as aesthetic tastes evolved and gave way to modernist sensibility. In some cases, Individual headstones were often placed flush with the ground or mounted on the retaining wall rather than being a distinctive vertical element. Grave markers were smaller and less ornate and sculptural, and inscriptions were reduced to the basics of name and date, sometimes occupation of the deceased. Some of the modern monuments reference the occupation or personality of the deceased rather than having architectural ornamentation.


A poignant one I noticed as I exited the cemetery is this one below belonging to a 23 year old.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi


Some of my favorite modernist monuments at Glenwood are shown below:

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Monument for heart surgeon Denton Cooley (1920-2016), in the shape of a heart.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Houston sculptor Jim Love designed the single oak leaf for the Brown family lot. The oak is a symbol of strength and endurance and oaks abound at Glenwood.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- Joseph Havel, long time director of Houston's Alfred E. Glassell School of Art, designed this monument for Anne Cox Koehler (1954-2006)


Glenwood also has a "strangers' rest" section devoted to people who died accidentally.

The strangers' rest section occurs in most Victorian cemeteries. In the 1800s and early 1900s, it was common for people to buy family plots. Strangers rest sections were set aside for victims of accidental death and didn't have a place to go. If there was an epidemic and there were a lot of burials, people were buried in rows. In this case, you might be resting next to a stranger. Down in this strangers rest section, there are people who died in unappealing circumstances, such as murder.


Horticulture- Glenwood Trees

In the 19th century, Texas was an important and early leader in American horticulture, by way of the Germans who settled here and became the first generation of professional horticulturists and plantsmen in Texas. In addition, Swiss and English botanists were also working in the region and these early horticultural explorations helped to establish Texas as one of the great horticultural states in the Union- A 1913 Texas department of Agriculture bulletin notes that "Texas horticulturists have been a virile force in American horticulture, enriching the world's collection of fruit varieties in particular." The founders of Glenwood, including horticulturist Alfred Whittaker, were avid gardeners and well aware of current horticultural trends.

The Giant Live Oak listed in the Harris County Big Tree Registry- This ancient oak is thought to be 100 years old and is aptly referred to as the Cemetery Oak. The tree has a circumference of 216", a height of 52' and a crown spread of 123'.

Trees abound at Glenwood- Several are listed in the Harris County Tree Registry and two are champions: A mockernut hickory and an eastern red cedar. A variety of other very old trees remain from the original forest, notably live oaks, water oaks, white oaks, shumard oaks, elms, yaupon hollies and pine.


In addition to beautiful ancient trees, Glenwood is home to an abundance of wildlife including foxes, coyotes, raccoons, possums, armadillos, rabbits, turtles, squirrels and raptors.


And finally...


I hope you are inspired to visit Glenwood Cemetery, to take time to connect to Houston's past, to soak yourself in the soothing wonder of nature, and to briefly remember that our time on earth is fleeting.


As Plutarch says:


 

Resources:

glenwoodcemetery.org

For tours to Glenwood contact: https://preservationhouston.org/

Landscape Architecture and the Rural Cemetery Movement- Patricia Finney

Houston's Silent Garden- Glenwood Cemetery 1871-2009- Suzanne Turner & Joanne Seale Wilson

https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/our-first-public-parks-the-forgotten-history-of-cemeteries/71818/

Cemeteries- Keith Eggener

https://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/in-the-garden-cemetery-the-revival-of-americas-first-urban-parks/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/europes-loveliest-cemeteries

Other noteworthy Houston cemeteries to visit include: Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery, Founders Memorial Cemetery and Olivewood Cemetery Houston


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