Sunday, April 3, 2011

Locked In and Climbing Out

When it comes to blood-chilling fear, being locked in a cemetery isn’t quite on par with public speaking, but its close. Still, I’d guess most people would opt not to be locked in a cemetery, given the choice. In my cemetery roamings, I’ve been locked in a few times. And believe me, it’s not something you get used to.

The main reason I now pay close attention to closing times is because of an adventure my brother and I had at Woodlawn Cemetery in the North Bronx, NYC. This was maybe in the summer of 2002, as far as I can recall, and my first time being locked in. I had convinced him to take the train with me from Philadelphia to the Bronx to go shooting in this grand old Victorian cemetery called Woodlawn. It’s all the way at the north end of a subway/elevated line at the Woodlawn stop, a pretty rough neighborhood. Worth the effort, though, as it is certainly one of the most elaborate and picturesque cemeteries in the country. Back then, it was my own precious discovery.

This being my first time at Woodlawn, I mistook the cemetery’s rear gate on Jerome Avenue for the main gate, (which is actually on Webster Avenue and East 233rd Street, clear on the opposite side of this huge 400-acre cemetery). The Jerome Avenue gate and wrought iron fencing were about 10 feet high. My brother made special note of that, and commented on the 4:30 closing time (he's such a worrywart).

We spent hours being awestruck by the amazing statues and mausoleums, especially the angels. One of the most fabulous memorials I have ever seen is the defeated Woodlawn angel shown in the image just below. (Years later a woman saw it in one of my shows and said, "It's so sad even the angels are crying.") I shot most of a roll of film of this singular statue, from various angles, bracketing exposures, and having my brother hold tree branches out of my way. I needed to get this down; the North Bronx is too far from home for a return trip.

As it turns out, the image you see here was actually taken on a second trip some months later, as my film developer messed up that entire roll of film−it came out severely overexposed (couldn’t have been MY fault, right?). All the other film I shot that day was fine, it was just this one roll, for some reason! (You can read more about my creepily eventful return trip in a previous Cemetery Traveler blog posting, “Voices in the Cemetery.”)

Detail of Belmont Mausoleum
So my brother and I spent about four hours at Woodlawn photographing the magnificent statuary and toward the end of the day, we began to make our way back toward the gate. Not far from the exit, I had my head turned by the magnificent Belmont mausoleum. The Belmont mausoleum (shown on the cover of the book, Woodlawn Remembers) is a full-scale replica of the Chapel of St. Hubert in France’s famed Loire valley (where the best wine comes from, I might add). It was designed by Leonardo Da Vinci in the “Gothic Flamboyant” style in the early 1500s. Da Vinci’s remains were placed in a sarcophagus in this original chapel. So this ain’t no ordinary mausoleum. Who could afford something like this? Or go to such a design extreme (see link below for more photos)? Its residents, Oliver and Alva Belmont, certainly had the money. Oliver Belmont was a millionaire (the oldest horserace in the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, is named for August Belmont, his father), and his wife Alva had enormous personal wealth as well, having previously married into the Vanderbilt family.

After we exhausted our film on the gargoyles and flying buttresses (I don’t really know what those are but I always wanted to say it), we realized it was 4:45! Aahhhh! To the gate!...... What?! CLOSED!!!

After some howls and imprecations on my brother’s part (directed mainly toward me), I took the predicament into consideration and figured it was possible to climb up the gate and down the other side. With my camera bag on my shoulder, I scaled up the inside of the gate, thankful for the built-in footholds of ornamental wrought iron, over the top and down the front. Getting Tim over the gate was quite another story−my poor brother had such a horrendous time! He cursed me coast to coast during both his ascent and descent. At one point, he was sitting on top of the closed gate with me outside trying to convince him that a safe dismount was indeed possible. I was conscious of cars on the highway slowing down to look at us, with the drivers probably thinking, “Why are they trying to get out? In this neighborhood, it’s certainly safer inside that cemetery!” But we got him out, with me jamming his feet into footholds he couldn’t see. Took about a half hour in the hot setting summer sun. To cool him down (in more ways than one) I bought him a few beers at the biker bar under the el stop across the street. Then we took the long series of train rides home.

Had we known there was a front entrance, we certainly would have tried to get to it to see if there were any live people about (I found out later that the main entrance was literally one mile away through the center of the cemetery, its that big!). As an aside, I came to find out even later that the gate we climbed over used to be quite famous. The Jerome Avenue gate of Woodlawn Cemetery was the site of a clandestine meeting related to the “Crime of the Century,” the supposed kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932. One evening, a police officer reported seeing a man sitting on top of the closed gate talking with someone on the sidewalk outside the gate. These men were believed to be Charles Lindbergh’s agent (Dr. John Condon) and the kidnapper/extortionist. For more on this, please see the link below.

Epilogue - The Return Trip
Since none of my images of the Weeping Angel came out, I was determined to have another go at it. I was on a mission--as the banner over Alva Belmont's crypt says,  'Failure is Impossible'. So I planned a solo trip a few months later. I knew when the sun would be illuminating that part of the cemetery and figured I needed to be in there after 4:30 pm (obviously after the gates were closed). I would wander around Woodlawn for a couple hours, allow myself to be locked in, spend as much time as I needed to make the photographs, then climb out. So my second experience being locked in a cemetery was elective. During the planning stage, a woman I know suggested we go together, take mushrooms, and spend the night in the cemetery. While the idea of crawling around licking tombstones didn’t appeal to me much, can you imagine having a bad trip in a cemetery?! I think I’d rather eat bees. So I went solo. Click the link here for my account of that eventful experience, “Voices in the Cemetery.”)

Further Reading:


During my third visit to Woodlawn a year or so later, my friend Krista and I actually found the front entrance with the offices and gatehouse, on Webster Avenue and East 233rd Street. We signed in as official visitors (so unlike me), and were told that if we wanted to take photographs, we had to apply for a permit, and pay some nominal fee (it might have been $5 or $10), which we did. Curiously, they also told us we were not allowed to photograph any of the bronze sculptures! These rules may have changed in the past ten years, but the “Photography Permit Application” (which you’re supposed to submit in advance of your visit) is still on Woodlawn’s website.

Woodlawn Photography Permit Application
Woodlawn Cemetery Website
Woodlawn Cemetery Image Gallery
Lindbergh Kidnapping

Woodlawn Cemetery