4734 Butler Street
Pittsburgh, Pa 15201-2999
Bella Morte Rating: 3 Tombstones
Situated in Lawrenceville, just five minutes from the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, lovers of cemetery art can pass through the stately Penn Avenue or Butler Street Gatehouses and enter the restful, pastoral realms of Allegheny Cemetery.
But things have not always been so calm and peaceful in the graveyard...
On Friday, May 31st, 2002, at approximately 7:00 p.m., Allegheny Cemetery encountered the devastating impact of one of nature’s more violent displays of force. Known as a macroburst, the tornado-like storm tore a path of destruction through the graveyard, taking down an estimated 700 trees and changing the cemetery’s historic landscape forever. The macroburst was described in an official press release as "the largest natural disaster the cemetery has ever experienced in our 158 years.”
As fate would have it, the first Bella Morte expedition to Allegheny took place in mid-August, 2002. Having not done our homework ahead of time (shame on us!), we were completely unaware of the macroburst and arrived to learn that, due to the damage caused by the storm, the cemetery had been closed to visitors...and would remain so for the next six months to a year! Our taphophile hearts were deeply saddened by this news, however, Fortune smiled upon us, when, during the course of our investigations of St. Mary Cemetery (which borders Allegheny on one side) we came across an area of fencing which had been taken down by the fall of one of Allegheny’s larger trees. Our very own chain-link welcome mat! We needed no invitation beyond that and soon found ourselves scrambling over the downed fencing and wandering amidst the devastation. What an amazing sight! The storm cut a clear path through the grounds, leaving hundred-year old trees strewn about like so many matchsticks while, just outside the storm's path, the cemetery remained untouched. What an incredible photographic opportunity! We barely knew which way to point our lenses! We snapped and flashed our way from one end of the graveyard to the other, capturing scenes of the grounds few others would ever see.
Two months following our first visit to Allegheny, artist Ruth Stanford arrived on the scene. Despite months of cleanup, she observed a site quite similar to what we had seen during our time on the grounds. Stanford was amazed by what she saw -- "uprooted monuments and headstones tangled in the roots of trees in some places." When she returned several months later, she studied the stumps of the felled trees and found they struck her as monuments to the trees in the same way the nearby man-made monuments memorialized human lives. Accordingly, she carved the names and ages of a number of the trees into their stumps as part of a "Contemporary Art Celebrating Life" project sponsored by the cemetery. Because the response to Stanford's "Fallen Timber" monuments has been so positive, cemetery administrators are considering preserving some of the stumps indefinitely as a memorial to the fallen trees and as a reminder of that devastating night in May of 2002.
Visitors today will see Allegheny on the mend due to the careful horticultural planning of her caretakers who are determined to see her restored to her former glory.
Despite repeated visits, we at Bella Morte just can't seem to warm to this cemetery. There is something lacking in the aura of the place which, though not without some admirable vistas and its share of lovely monuments, simply fails to capture our hearts. This includes the grounds as well as the community mausoleum, known as the Temple of Memories. Though obvious efforts have been made to make the facility inviting by adding music, paintings, glass-front niches, etc., the building still feels sterile and lifeless (no pun intended). The only memories we carry from the "Temple" are not the type which make us wish to return again.
We fared infinitely better in nearby Homewood cemetery and suggest you not visit the Pittsburgh area without setting aside time for a visit to this truly magnificent graveyard.
For those who choose to visit Allegheny despite our less-than-outstanding review, we strongly recommend a stop at the Winter mausoleum. Located in one of the cemetery's more wealthy "neighbourhoods," it still manages to stand out among the other impressive monuments and mausoleums in the section. With its Egyptian styling, guardian sphinxes and fascinatingly detailed bronze door, the Winter mausoleum is not difficult to find. Look for it just past the Temple of Memories when entering through the Penn Street gate.
The sixth oldest rural garden cemetery in the United States, Allegheny is purported to be the second largest of all U.S. cemeteries (Arlington being the largest). Allegheny features over 15 miles of roadways winding through her 300 acres.