Friday, March 27, 2015

Park Day 2015 at Mount Moriah Cemetery

Park Day 2015
March 28, 2015 is America’s  national “Park Day,” sponsored by the Civil War Trust. For the fourth year in a row, the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. is celebrating with a special event at Mount Moriah Cemetery (half of which is in Philadelphia, half in Yeadon, PA.). Tours and cleanup activities are planned from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m., but feel free to join the crowd and just walk around and explore the cemetery’s hundreds of acres of beauty.

About Park Day 
"Since 1996, the Civil War Trust has sponsored Park Day, an annual hands-on preservation event to help Civil War — and now Revolutionary War — battlefields and historic sites take on maintenance projects large and small. Activities are chosen by each participating site to meet their own particular needs and can range from raking leaves and hauling trash to painting signs and trail buildings." (ref.)
If you have never been to Mount Moriah, this is a great opportunity to see the site (and the sights) in this massive sacred place that figures so prominently in local and national history. Entry will be via the front gate at 6201 Kingsessing Avenue.  

The recently cleared Circle of Saint John, Mount Moriah Cemetery

Clearing area around Betsy Ross' grave
If it has been a year or more since your last visit to Mount Moriah, you will be amazed at the newly cleared areas (of weeds and other forestation). Literally thousands of volunteers have helped clear such sections as the (Masonic) Circle of Saint John, the area behind the 1855 brownstone gatehouse, and many large plots on the Yeadon side of the cemetery. One of our tours, scheduled for 1 p.m., “Circle of Saint John Forgotten Heroes,” will focus on this dramatic area of the cemetery and its occupants (the grave of Betsy Ross is near the circle – you can’t miss the flagpole!)

While Park Day is mainly about saving historic Civil War battlefields, it also encompasses related historic sites. The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. is honoring the hundreds of Civil War soldiers and sailors interred in its ground. One of our Park Day tours, in fact, will be “African American Sailors of the Civil War” which will be held in the Naval Asylum plot on the Yeadon side of the cemetery (1 p.m.).

Volunteers transcribing headstone information in the Naval Asylum plot

So what do I mean by “Naval Asylum?” From The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website:
"Philadelphia was an important hub for the transportation of supplies and troops from the East Coast to the front lines during the Civil War. In addition to arsenals, supply depots and navy yards, Philadelphia also had numerous military hospitals, as well as the U.S. Naval Home—a hospital and residential care facility for sick and disabled sailors.

During the war, the Federal Government acquired a 10 acre parcel of land on the Yeadon Borough side of the Mount Moriah Cemetery as a burial ground for navy and marine personnel. Originally known as the Naval Asylum, the burial plot was intended for soldiers who died in military hospitals or military rest homes. It also houses the remains of those veterans who were disinterred from the grounds of the U.S. Naval Home."

The 21 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients interred in the Naval Asylum, incidentally, may be the most in any cemetery in the country (excluding Arlington National Cemetery), according to one military expert (ref.). Even if you don’t attend the Naval Asylum tour, a peaceful, contemplative walk through this respectful area is quite sobering  – “In Memory of Our Dead Comrades” as the inscription states on one of Mount Moriah’s G.A.R. monuments.

Naval Asylum plot at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Yeadon, PA side

How to Pay Your Respects:
As stated in the 2015 Civil War Trust Park Day press release:
"You can give back to your country, get out of the house, and honor your heritage all at once by joining the Civil War Trust on Saturday, March 28, for Park Day 2015. Park Day is an annual hands-on preservation event to help maintain Civil War — and now Revolutionary War — battlefields and historic sites across the nation."

Our main work area on March 28 (rain date April 11), should you choose to help out with the cleanup, will be Section 27 on the Philadelphia side of Mount Moriah. Mary A. Brady, a celebrated volunteer Civil War nurse is interred here in her family plot.

Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission (PHMC) determined Mount Moriah to be eligible for National Register

Join us for the Friends’ 4th annual Park Day event sponsored by the Civil War Trust and The History Channel. Bring your family and your favorite lawn tools with you to help preserve history.

Location: Philadelphia side

Weather: We’re expecting some cloudy, chilly spring weather; the ground is likely to be wet and marshy. Please wear rain boots or other waterproof boots!

Everyone is welcome to attend a restoration event and help us work to reclaim the cemetery one section at a time. No special skills are needed – just come prepared to work!

We generally have basic hand tools available, such as loppers and clippers, but you are welcome to bring your own tools. Gas powered weed whackers are always welcome, too.

We recommend long pants, sturdy shoes or boots, a hat for sunny days, sunscreen, and bug spray.

Volunteers during a Cleanup Day at Mount Moriah Cemetery

Mount Moriah Location: 6201 Kingsessing Avenue, Philadelphia, PA  19142
(Click here for map.)
Date: March 28, 2015
Rain Date: April 11, 2015
Watch the dramatic video, "Mount Moriah Documentary," by Jonathan Barmby and David Mielcarek of Elevate Cinema
The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website
The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Facebook Group Page

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Feeling Mortal

The lyrics to Kris Kristofferson's song, Feeling Mortal
(from the KK Records 2013 album Feeling Mortal).
I thought of this song as I recently installed some temporary graffiti on a snow-covered grave marker. I was, in fact, "wide awake and feeling mortal."

"Wide awake and feeling mortal
At this moment in the dream
That old man there in the mirror
And my shaky self-esteem

Here today and gone tomorrow
That’s the way it’s got to be
With an empty blue horizon
For as far as I can see

God Almighty here I am
Am I where I ought to be
I’ve begun to soon descend
Like the sun into the sea
And I thank my lucky stars
From here to eternity
For the artist that you are
And the man you made of me

Pretty speeches still unspoken
Perfect circles in the sand
Rules and promises I’ve broken
That I still don’t understand

Soon or later I’ll be leaving
I’m a winner either way
For the laughter and the loving
That I’m living with today

God Almighty here I am
Am I where I ought to be
I’ve begun to soon descend
Like the sun into the sea
And I thank my lucky stars
From here to eternity
For the artist that you are
And the man you made of me

Wide awake and feeling mortal"

Read about the album on the Kris Kristofferson website.
YouTube link to a live performance of the song.
Click to buy the album from Amazon:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mount Moriah Cemetery - A Winter Wonderland

For most people, a walk through a winter wonderland would not involve an old graveyard. Luckily for you, I’m not most people. When it snowed ten inches in Philadelphia in early March, the first place I wanted to see under a blanket of snowy-white frosting was Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Straddling Philadelphia and Delaware counties in the cities of Yeadon and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mount Moriah is a previously neglected and abandoned, several-hundred acre Victorian-era cemetery. It has been recently adopted by the volunteer group Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. and is presently being maintained and restored through the herculean effort of thousands of volunteers. The legal entity Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation has even more recently (2014) been appointed the legal responsible party for business operations. (You can read more about this at the link at the end, but for now, back to the snow. 

Yeadon, PA side of Mount Moriah Cemetery
At ten inches deep, walking through the cemetery was not a walk in the park (although in Victorian times, cemeteries were the only parks available to the public!). This was going to be a challenge, as the roads are not plowed and walkways are not shoveled. (Although the property is now the legal responsibility of the court-appointed and newly-formed
Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation, funds have yet to be identified for ongoing routine maintenance, security, and regular staffing.) In order to not exhaust myself and my limited time, I had to decide what area of the cemetery would provide me with the most picturesque results with the least amount of hiking. I chose the Yeadon side, as it has a circle of grand old mausoleums up on a hill.  

Mausoleum rooftop beyond the snow

I trudged through the snow in the torrential sunshine (though it was only about twenty-three degrees), thinking how much the landscape reminded me of Aspen, Colorado in the winter. With light puffy snow on all the tree branches, it all looked bucolic indeed. My super literary abilities failed me and I was rendered speechless (but fear not – I have retained my acerbic wit and power to forget peoples’ names!). The beauty of this place created for me as spiritual an experience as may indeed be possible at this late date. 

The sky was blue and cloud-free. On a day like this, attention is riveted to detail: detail as audacious as the bright sun playing on the glistening ice that hangs from the roofs of the grand Victorian mausoleums; detail as subtle as the swirls made by this flag as the breeze blew it around. I spent about an hour climbing over the drifts and buried granite coping behind the mausoleums, making photographs of the brilliant decay. Yes, the mausoleums are in this condition because of years of neglect and vandalism. Graffiti defaces a few, while all have their doors and windows bricked up. However, like most other things, snow tends to cover up a multitude of sins and makes everything look clean and pure. I decided to walk around the hill behind the mausolea to one of my favorite spots.

There were some people tracks heading toward the area in which I was interested, so perhaps others recently had the same idea. The snow was a nuisance to walk through, but I’d much rather be walking through it making photographs than shoveling it – which is what I had been doing recently. This was a welcome respite from the last two dreary days during which schools were closed due to all the snow that fell during a 24-hour period.

Footprints in front of the Maull family plot, Section 141, Mount Moriah Cemetery

The road along the front of the mausolea takes you up the hill to an area replete with elaborate granite monuments, obelisks, and family plots - many of them in the woods. One of my favorite sites (and sights) at Mount Moriah is the Maull family plot. It is relatively easy to get to, as the roadways, though overgrown and grassy (no vehicular access), are perfectly walkable. That said, it is quite off the beaten path and not usually seen by casual visitors. If you read my blog, you know full well that I am not a casual visitor!

Maull plot after a snow, early March, 2015

The Maull plot is singular in that it has two Japanese maple trees growing in it. Their twisting branches are covered with flaming red and orange leaves in the fall. The scene is made quite picturesque as the leaves frame the headstones and monuments in the plot. In winter, all these shapes, covered with snow, provide a myriad of photographic choices. You just cannot take a bad photograph here – it’s like shooting a supermodel! Well, it is now, anyway. Not quite a supermodel up until recently. In addition to clearing the plot so visitors can have better access, the Friends volunteers have also removed the unsightly graffiti from the back of the plot's large central monument!

Graffiti removed from monument at Mount Moriah Cemetery

Japanese maple tree
I walked around and finally through the plot, making photos from various vantage points, with different cameras. I was careful to work my way into the plot slowly, to ensure I did not deface the snowscape with my footprints until I exhausted all possibilities before me. I walked out of the plot onto the main road and was a bit startled to see a gentleman walking toward me. He had two cameras around his neck. After hellos and introductions, it turned out that he was none other than local photographer David Huisken, who has posted many of his photos of the Maull plot on Facebook. It was great to meet someone with common interests, even if one is as seemingly bizarre as sharing a “favorite” spot in a cemetery!

I must say, however, that as I left David, I felt a bit guilty that I made all those footprints in the area he came to photograph! He had, however, already made some wonderful images down near Cobbs Creek, which separates the cemetery's Yeadon side from its Philadelphia side. This image below (which David graciously let me publish here) captures the beauty of Mount Moriah with no grave stones in the scene at all - a novel approach! This area along Cobbs Creek Parkway is part of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park (at over 9,200 acres, Fairmount Park is one of the largest urban green spaces in the United States).

Cobbs Creek at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia (photo by David Huisken)

I write this a few days after my walk through Mount Moriah. It is fifty degrees and the snow is gone. It has turned to water which will serve to boost plant growth and swell Cobbs Creek. Looking at David Huskein’s wonderful image of the creek and the Philadelphia side of Mount Moriah, you’d hardly guess that he was standing at the mangled rusty guardrail alongside the gritty, grimy parkway when he made his photograph. Snow does cover a multitude of sins and offers us beauty, if just for a short while.

So if you’ve ever wanted to visit the stunning beauty that is Mount Moriah Cemetery, now is the time to go. Winter is great since all the foliage is dead and you can see the monuments and gravestones through the trees. Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, you now have much greater access to all parts of the cemetery. However, since only about thirty percent of this hundred-acre wood has been cleared and is regularly maintained, the greater portion of the grounds will quickly be overgrown with greenery come spring. 

References and Further Reading:
The  Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website
The  Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Facebook Group Page

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Cemetery Photographs of Ansel Adams

The joy of finding things out after the fact, is, in my opinion, more fun than finding things out ahead of time. For instance, if you know about the Grand Canyon beforehand, and then you go to see it, you will probably go, “Wow ... “(while emitting a heavy sigh). On the other hand, if you never knew of its existence, and you stumbled upon it, you would be absolutely stunned.

On a smaller scale, this happens to me a lot. I visit many cemeteries. While I may look up their location beforehand, I generally do no research as to the interesting things inside, so to speak. I prefer to discover them myself.

In certain cases, I get upset when I find that I've missed things, like all the mobsters’ graves at St. John Cemetery in Queens, NY. On the other hand, I was quite tickled when I happened upon, all by my lonesome, U.S. President Grover Cleveland‘s grave marker in New Jersey’s Princeton Cemetery.

I had visited a few small cemeteries in Long Beach, California, in 2013. Sunnyside Cemetery on Signal Hill was singular in that oil derricks surrounded the neighborhood. While doing some research on the cemetery for a blog I wrote about one of its few statues (seeAngel in the House” - The Female Victorian Ideal?), an angel, I happened upon some information related to the only other life-sized statue in the small cemetery – a non-angel. While I found the latter to be less interesting than the former, I did make a few photos of it – some with the derricks in the background, some without. I prefer the photos without the derricks (one of mine is at the beginning of this blog).

"Angel of Sorrows," sunnyside Cemetery, Long Beach, California

It seems that master photographer Ansel Adams preferred the derricks. That is, he made photographs of this statue in 1939 with the derricks in the scene. Well, I cannot say for sure that he did not photograph the statue without the derricks, but this is the one he printed and is part of his vast portfolio. When Adams made these and other photographs in the Los Angeles area in 1939-40, the oil derricks were taller and the trees were shorter.

"Cemetery Statue & Oil Derricks, Long Beach, Calif." - Ansel Adams, 1939

Modern oil derricks near Sunnyside Cemetery
While not exactly kismet, it is interesting to me that Adams and I photographed the same statue, seventy-four years apart. Reportedly (ref.), the statue is called "Angel of Sorrows." What I wonder about is why I preferred to photograph just the statue? For me, the relic of someone’s existence should stand alone. For Adams, perhaps the same relic is shown in the context of the bigger picture, amidst the needs and wants of the larger human family,. As a conservationist, perhaps photographing the oil derricks so close to a consecrated burial ground was social commentary. Certainly, this other image (below) that he made for Fortune magazine in 1940 draws even greater attention to that.

"Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach," Ansel Adams, c. 1940 (Ref.)

Adams’ other famous cemetery photograph, by the way, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941" is more pictorial than documentary. The photograph (shown below) is arguably "the best known and most sought after photograph in the field of fine-art photography" (ref.). You may be surprised that other master photographers have also made photographs in cemeteries. Walker Evans photographed St. Michael’s Cemetery in Bethlehem, PA (1935), Paul Strand photographed headstones in Vermont (1944), and even Edward Weston photographed graveyards and funerary chapels in New Orleans (1941).

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 - Ansel Adams (ref.)

Other than Adams’ “Moonrise” photo, none of these other internationally famous photographers became internationally famous for their cemetery photographs. Perhaps they were still cutting their teeth to find their niche. They have since become widely known and have achieved great acclaim for photographing other subjects – landscapes, people, still-lifes. Perhaps their studies of form and shape related to cemetery architecture was part of their formative process of seeing the world. Perhaps it is mine, as well.

I'd like to conclude this post with an explanation of Ansel Adams' Long Beach photographs, which I quote from the Los Angeles Public Library website. You may find this amusing!

"Around 1939, Ansel Adams was commissioned by Fortune magazine to photograph a series of images for an article covering the aviation history of the Los Angeles area. For the project, Adams took 217 photographs showing everyday life, businesses, street scenes, aerospace employees, and a variety of other subjects, but when the article, "City of Angels," appeared in the March 1941 issue, only a few of the images were included. In the early 1960s, approximately 20 years later, Adams rediscovered all of the photographs among papers at his home in Carmel, and sent a letter of inquiry to the Los Angeles Public Library, asking if the institution would be interested in receiving the collection as a donation. In his letter, Adams expressed that, "the weather was bad over a rather long period and none of the pictures were very good" and "if they have no value whatsoever, please dispose of them in the incenerator [sic]." He went on to write that "I would imagine that they represent about $100.00 minimum value." In response, the Los Angeles Public Library gladly accepted the gift of 135 contact prints and 217 negatives, and the staff concluded that a fair value for the collection would be $150.00"

References and Further Reading:

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil Derricks (Some pretty amazing 1940s-era photographs of Long Beach, CA in this article!)
Christmas in Bethlehem (a Cemetery Traveler blog I wrote which includes information about Walker Evans' cemetery photography)