|A Lovely Lane Credit: Bill Rockwell|
Serene and pastoral, beautiful and bucolic, who wouldn’t want to be buried here. And think of the august company you’d have - Mellons, Fricks, Buhls, Heinzes, Pitcairns, Benedums and 78,000 others (or thereabouts), many with much lesser distinguished pedigrees. Not that people are dying to get in! Or are they?
Non-denominational and non-discriminatory, Homewood Cemetery got its start in 1878 in Pittsburgh’s East End. What once was an oak forest was clear cut and replanted for easy maintenance in the Lawn Park style. Two years ago the cemetery earned its arboretum certification following an inventory of trees that now tops the 4,000 mark with 40 different identified species.
To think that I drove past this revered local landmark on Dallas Avenue with nary a glance. It wasn’t until a Pittsburgh Resonance Works concert last year in the cemetery’s lovely stone chapel that I made a cursory acquaintance of the grounds that have largely stayed true to their original style of wooded grassland and rolling, undulating hills punctuated by monuments, some grand, others modest in design.
Prior to the concert, the indomitable, informed Jennie Benford, director of programming, led the audience on a short walkabout that gave us a taste of what’s there to be seen and, more importantly, what can be learned, on her regular pubic tours held on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
|A Drizzle Doesn't Dampen the Interest Credit: Bill Rockwell|
Recently, I managed to join a dozen or so others on one of Benford’s themed expeditions, an hour and a half long stroll through Section 14, where many of the city’s illustrious have found their ultimate resting places. The focus of her colorful anecdotes lit on the distaff occupants that ran the gamut from Agnes Taylor, the only African-American woman buried in the section, to Elizabeth Rodd, the first woman to wear a WAC uniform in World War Two, to the uber-wealthy, Elizabeth Pitcairn, wife of railroad magnate, Robert Pitcairn.
Taylor operated a tourist home in Pittsburgh’s Hill District at a time when African-Americans often had a difficult time finding overnight lodging in the Jim Crow era. As an aid to travel, a guide called the Greene Book identified places where they were accepted and could put up for the night. Taylor’s home was one of them. In her researches, Benford discovered that Nat King Cole stayed at the Taylor establishment on several occasions, which indicated the high caliber of her domicile.
Taylor also worked for the rather eccentric Robert Woods, a doctor who designed his own headstone, wrote his own death notice (a negative one), had his house torn down after his death and offered to pay the burial expenses of two women who worked for him, provided they eschewed a tombstone. Taylor was the only one who took him up on his offer and lies next to her benefactor in an anonymous grave.
|The Pitcairn Crypt Credit: Bill Rockwell|
As a widow, she was quite politically active and a member of the Allegheny County Equal Franchise Federation, which labored to get women the vote. In 1914, she organized a 3-day fete fundraiser for her favorite cause and later moved to Florida where she continued her love affair with the automobile by amassing a large collection.
Other interesting stops on the "Audacious Pioneers: The Women of Section 14" tour include narratives about a world famous opera singer, a palm reading countess from Coshocton, Ohio and a Pittsburgh socialite who may have (or not) changed the line of succession to England’s royal family.
Besides Benford’s interesting tales, the tour stimulates an interest in mortuary architecture, with its many and varied styles. One of the most interesting monuments is a pyramidal crypt, one of the cemetery’s most salient.
|The Brown Mausoleum Credit: Bill Rockwell|
The landmark mausoleum holds the remains of William Harry Brown, vice-president of Marine National Bank and director of the Union Trust Company. His wife, Margaret Boyle Brown, is the one rumored to have altered (or not) the course of English history. But I prefer that Benford tell her tale as she’s much more informed on the matter than I.
“Audacious Pioneers,” is offered Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1 pm or, on other days and times, by appointment. Reservations are required and can be made at 412-421-1822. The tour is $10 per person, all proceeds benefitting The Homewood Cemetery Historical Fund.