50 101st Street
Troy, New York 12180
Bella Morte Rating: 2 Tombstones
While we certainly admire Oakwood administration’s fondness for the cemetery in their keeping, we beg to differ with their claim that it is “one of the most exceptional…in the United States.” To be sure, the Gardner Earl Chapel (see separate review) may rightly make such a boast…but that is another story. In any case, our disagreement should not lead one to believe Oakwood Cemetery is not worth a visit if you happen to be nearby. Its peaceful acres (which include 29 miles of roadway and pedestrian walks as well as four lakes) are, for the most part, well-maintained and, if they lack a host of remarkable monuments, it is nevertheless true there are a number of comely mausoleums which make up for the sculptural deficit. Some of the more remarkable include:
- Warren Chapel & Mausoleum: Constructed in 1861 under the architectural leadership of Henry C. Dudley, this Gothic Revival structure evokes strongly mixed emotions. On the one hand, its scale and imposing grey limestone walls speak of a bygone era where affluent families took immense pride in memorializing their dead. As such, looking upon the mausoleum prompts a sense of joy among taphophiles and those who admire such architecture. On the other hand, the deplorable condition of the building could make even the most stoic among us weep. At the time of our visit, the massive doors were sealed. The roof was covered in a heavy black tarp which was frayed in many areas and looked to be doing precious little by way of staving off the untoward effects of rain, snowmelt and wind. Most of the stained glass windows (designed by Robert Weir) were shattered and what seemed to be entire flocks of birds flew in and out of the gaping holes in the panes and bell tower. Of course, where there are birds, there are droppings--and pondering the fetid piles which undoubtedly cover the building’s interior is profoundly disturbing. A 1984 survey we discovered indicates the interior features marble walls and slate slab floors. There is room for 150 interments in the crypt beneath the structure, though how many Warrens rest uneasily there is not known to us. The record also indicates responsibility for the chapel’s maintenance lies, not with Oakwood, but with an entity listed as the Warren Free Institute. Whatever that may be…the concept of responsibility, rather than being a matter of pride, is, in this case, a sad accusation.
- Tibbits Mausoleum: Another creation of Henry C. Dudley, this gothic mausoleum (1870) shelters the mortal remains of merchant George Mortimer Tibbits. Though nowhere near as dilapidated as its larger cousin, the handsome building is clearly neglected and in need of attention.
- Tracy Mausoleum: This 1904 granite structure features myriad design elements, most notably its distinctive “beehive” roof. Its most famous permanent resident is Sarah Tracy, a devout Catholic former schoolteacher who inherited vast sums upon the death of her brother, Edward. This windfall inspired her to quit teaching and travel the world. During one journey, she met and befriended Bishop Donahue of Wheeling, West Virginia. Her piety, combined with her fondness for the bishop, inspired her to make numerous financial contributions to his diocese. On one occasion, she gave the sum of $10,000 to Donahue to support his efforts to bring the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity from Canada to Wheeling. Upon their arrival, they established the Good Shepherd Home for Young Ladies, a facility which offered education and housing to young women considered to be somehow “wayward” and in need of financial and emotional support. Ms. Tracy’s largest bequest resulted in the establishment of Wheeling College.
Twenty-one other mausoleums are scattered throughout Oakwood’s lush grounds.
As for sculptures--there are only two we considered to be of note. The first, a larger-than-life bronze which enjoys an unparalleled view of the city below, commemorates the “martyrdom” of Robert Ross, a poll watcher who was shot and killed during the 1894 election while seeking to prevent voter fraud at the ballot box.
The second is a life-size figure of Jesus who cups the earth in his left palm while his uplifted right hand points toward the heavens. Set against a plain grey marble backdrop which may be intended to represent the opening to a tomb, the hooded figure conveys a sense of serenity. The base of the stone is engraved with the phrase, I am the resurrection and the life.
Last but not least is the grave of one Samuel Wilson (1766-1854). His claim to fame? He is most commonly referred to as that peculiar (and one might even say “mildly sinister”) personification of the government of the United Staes of America…“Uncle Sam.” There seems to be little agreement with regard to how Mr. Wilson, a meatpacker by trade, came to be embodied in the image of the elderly, top-hated gentleman dressed in red, white and blue who points from posters everywhere declaring “I Want You.” Some say the meat supplied to the Armed Forces by Wilson was stamped U.S., ostensibly to declare its origin as being the United States but mistakenly thought to refer to the suppliers’ alleged nickname, “Uncle Sam.” Others say the stamp really was a direct reference to Mr. Wilson and that he really was affectionately known by friends as “Uncle Sam.” Still others suggest the association came nearly eighty years after Wilson’s death when his granddaughter replaced his unassuming stone with a larger marker and bronze plate which falsely declared him to be the individual upon whom the fictionalized charter was based. Confusion notwithstanding, if you happen to find yourself in Oakwood you may as well visit the gravesite…if for no other reason than to say you did and/or check it off your Roadside America list.
On the day of our visit, we spent several hours on the cemetery grounds and we will say that, all in all, there would not be too much to recommend a trip to Oakwood in Troy, New York (which really is in the middle of nowhere) if it didn’t happen to be the case that the Gardner Earl Chapel and Crematorium rests within her pleasant grounds. For its beauty and historical merit, the Gardner Earl is a prize worth fighting for…or at least traveling to the middle of nowhere! It only stands to reason that if you go there for the Gardner Earl, you might as well allow for an hour or two to explore the rest of what Oakwood has to offer.