GARDNER EARL CREMATORIUM & COLUMBARIUM (Oakwood Cemetery)
50 101st Street
Troy, New York 12180
Bella Morte Rating: 5 Tombstones
In our exploration of cemeteries and mausoleums we have come to observe that oftentimes grief over the death of a child serves as a motivator for the creation of many particularly breathtaking monuments. No memorial we have visited has done more to affirm that observation than the Gardner Earl Chapel & Crematorium.
Located just inside the rear entrance to Troy New York’s Oakwood Cemetery, “The Earl” (as it is affectionately known) is nearly unparalleled for its sumptuousness and magnificence. The building has been designated a National Historic Landmark as well as earning a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. So what, you might wonder, is the story behind The Earl.
The building dates back to 1890…fully two years following the death of its namesake, the son of wealthy parents. Gardner’s father was the part-owner of Earl & Wilson, a wildly lucrative shirt collar company that played a major role in the production of millions of men’s shirt collars and cuffs in the mid to late 1800s. Indeed, as a point of interest, you might care to know that Troy, New York was, at that time, one of the leading producers of the stiffly-starched detachable collars which must surely have tortured the throats of Victorian men everywhere. At the height of the fashion, there were twenty-five companies in Troy producing shirt collars! Among them, Earl & Wilson was probably the most successful and it was this fortune which allowed the Earl family to live (and die!) in exceptional luxury.
Little information is extant about young Gardner; however, we do know he was an only child and that his brief life was plagued by ill health. He died, a single man, at 38 years of age. And yet, as lovers of all things funereal, we owe Mr. Gardner a great debt of gratitude for what his vision inspired. You see, being a man of means, Gardner was able to travel the world and one of the places he favoured was Europe. It was during these travels he came to learn of the newly-introduced practice of modern cremation. It hardly seems a stretch to imagine Gardner attended the Vienna Exposition in 1873 where he might have beheld a demonstration of a new crematory invented by Doctor L. Brunetti, a Professor of Pathological Anatomy at the University of Padua. While that is speculation, we can say with certainty that the young Master Earl was thoroughly captivated by the process of having one’s body committed to purifying flames rather than being allowed to putrefy and moulder in a grave after death. Indeed, he returned to America and instructed his parents that, when the time came, he wished to be cremated.
That time came in Troy, New York on 3 March, 1887.
It presented William and Hannah (Gardner’s parents) with a unique problem. At the time, cremation in America was practically unheard of. Indeed, the nearest crematory was located in Buffalo, New York (Buffalo Cremation Company, 1885)! Difficulties notwithstanding, the Earl’s transported the body of their son, by train, to Buffalo where they dutifully submitted it for cremation. They brought the cremains back to Troy, New York filled with an admiration for the process and a new-found determination to royally memorialize their deceased son. And, as you shall soon learn, the Earl’s spared no expense!
What rendered the construction of the crematorium particularly unusual was the fact that the Earl’s themselves were the sole financiers. This meant funding was not dependent upon a public who, for the most part, was still unfamiliar with, and resistant to, the idea of cremation. It also allowed the Earl’s free rein to design everything to their exact specifications. As an aside, both William and Hannah were quickly converted to the concept of cremation and, upon their deaths, were cremated in the chambers they themselves had commissioned!
The crematorium stands at the top of a slight promontory at the 101st Street entrance to Oakwood, 300’ above the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. Research indicates that in years long-past there was a covered bridge at this entrance which, sadly, burned and was never replaced. A large, man-made pond, its murky water barely troubled by a strange cement “fountain,” lends a foreboding air to the place…but we mean that in the best possible sense! Indeed, we could hardly wait to get inside, though we had plenty to look at, to be sure…and we busied ourselves taking pictures and examining the magnificent exterior until an Oakwood staff member arrived to let us in. [NOTE: The building is locked and can only be entered by making arrangements through the cemetery office…518.272.7520].
A few notes on the exterior:
The architectural style is Richardsonian Romanesque. The construction is of rough-hewn grey stone. The building itself is composed of many elements, including a 90’ tower, an open, arched loggia, dormers, chimneys, cornices, windows of various shapes and sizes and a slate roof. In the original plans, the tower was intended to house the urns on the Earl family; however, as you shall see, those plans were changed. In any case, the tower originally housed a reception room and later (circa 1930) a bathroom was added for the convenience of those families. The former reception room also contains a built-in desk, washbasin and fireplace. Nowadays, however, it is the opposite side of the building that is used for funerals, weddings and other special events and it is here where the magnificence of The Earl can still be enjoyed by visitors.
The nave of the chapel boasts an oak ceiling. The floors are composed of bluestone and the walls of pink Champlain marble and sandstone. The windows are Tiffany and, of particular note is the “rose” on the rear wall as it boasts a large amount of “jewel glass.” This is not glass set with precious or semi-precious stones. It is simply cut to glitter, glimmer and resemble gems. The window also stands above a three-sided protruding structure which one should most-assuredly take the time to approach as it is this wall, composed of Sienna marble, that contains the inured remains of the Earls, each set behind its own gorgeously-engraved bronze faceplate.
On the opposite wall, up towards the chancel, is a marble niche which features a bronze bust of Gardner himself. It was commissioned by his parents and executed by Charles Calverly.
Carved oak choir stalls rest in the chancel and, beyond that stands an altar composed of Sienna marble and white onyx. Three Tiffany windows depict Jesus and two angels. Also of note are the ornate radiator covers beneath the stained glass. These were produced by the P. Guerin Company of New York and serve to underscore the Victorian penchant for making even the most mundane objects quite beautiful!
Between the nave and reception room is a small Tiffany window featuring the image of a winged and flaming torch beneath which the words FIAT LUX (Let there be light) are set on a field of pink and purple glass.
It is the reception room which, in our opinion, is the crown jewel of The Earl. But it was not always the case. When The Earl was completed in 1889, the reception room was actually the retort room. Its design was hardly opulent. Indeed, it featured nothing but two retorts which were fueled by wood furnaces located in the basement beneath. It wasn’t until superintendent James Inglis came along in 1892 that the room was transformed into its present-day splendor. Inglis determined wood-fire was an inefficient method for cremation and he introduced the use of kerosene as a superior alternative. It was under his direction that two new retorts were added, seamlessly, we might add, to the original building. This structure is marked exteriorly by a soaring chimney and the word CREMATORIUM boldly carved in a large rectangular stone. Tragically, when cremation technology improved once-again, Oakwood decided against retrofitting the majestic crematorium and, instead, a small room was added to the west side of The Earl in 1969. The new retorts ware fueled with natural gas; however, they never functioned properly (due to the updrafts caused by the bluff upon which the building stands) and, in 1975 a new concrete block building was constructed 50’ to the north of The Earl. This new facility resembles a shabby garage and could not be farther from offering the dignified disposition of The Earl than it is! To our minds, it is a real travesty and serves to underscore the modern inclination for expedience over aesthetics.
But back to the reception room...
With the addition of the new retorts, the once-plain room underwent a startling transformation. Seventeen Brazilian green onyx columns, all carved from a single block, offset arches, windows and mosaics. It is this same onyx which is used in the panels of the four heavy and ornate bronze doors which were installed to seal the opening to the retorts. The wainscoting on the walls is composed of pink African and green Japanese marble and, above that, the remainder of the marble is all Sienna. Two 11’ x 8’ biblically-themed Tiffany windows allow washes of multi-coloured light to illuminate the space which boasts murals of angels, elaborate dental work, bronze torchieres and a soaring ceiling. At the center of the room rests a mahogany catafalque flanked by kneeling angels. The overall effect of these magnificent elements is a sense of dignity, solemnity and artistic brilliance which, to our minds, should still be the standard for the disposition of mortal remains.
Beyond the reception room is the aforementioned retort room. It is simple, but dignified and features glazed brick walls, bluestone flooring and a baseboard comprised of Tennessee marble. An iron staircase allows access to the basement.
Surprisingly, very little has changed for The Earl in the many decades since it was constructed. Electricity was added around 1910. The original slate roof was replaced with copper around 1905 and subsequently switched back to slate. The retorts were moved and changed as previously indicated. In essence, the greatest changes have been rendered by time itself. The vicissitudes of the seasons, so pronounced in New York’s climate, have played a major role in the decline of The Earl’s structural integrity. A 2002 survey recommended $2,000,000 worth of repair and restorations. Happily, it is our understanding that the current administration is actively seeking funding to carry out these recommended improvements.
The Gardner Earl Crematorium and Columbarium is a masterpiece of American ingenuity and a testament to the love of parents for their child. It is also an important link in the chain which helped establish cremation as a popular means of respectfully reducing one’s mortal remains to a form suitable for a number of aesthetically-pleasing memorial options.