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BY ZACH MORTICE

Mount Auburn’s roads and paths were laid out to highlight the landscape’s natural contours. Photo courtesy Mount Auburn Cemetery.

A crowdsourced archive transcription project at one of the nation’s most historic cemeteries offers insight into 19th century landscape design.

 

Among the surprises Meg Winslow has found amid 100,000 pages of digitized 19th century records from Mount Auburn Cemetery’s long history are documents detailing “perpetual care of the soil,” she says. As part of lot purchase contracts, people were paying up front for the maintenance of healthy soil alongside care of the grass and plantings and upkeep of headstones. Winslow, Mount Auburn’s Curator of Historical Collections and Archives, found documents from the 1830s that detail soil type and quality, making clear that the experience of Mount Auburn was always focused on horticultural expression.

Established in 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the nation’s first rural cemetery, the synthesis of pastoral and carefully planted landscapes dotted with memorials, gravestones, and sculpture. It was a persuasive vision of how the living should honor the dead, as opposed to the crowded warrens of graves in churchyards that had predominated. This landscape type spread across the nation within a few decades, influencing the conception of the public park as another sort of pastoral reprieve from the dirty, brutish city.

The long and complex history of this continually evolving landscape is becoming clearer. A $42,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities is funding the transcription of these documents, which include letters, trustee minutes, and records from superintendents, sculptors, gardeners, and others. It’s a record that delves into historical funerary practices, landscape and memorial design, and environmental conservation at what is perhaps the most historic cemetery landscape in the nation. (more…)

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