Just as with all cityscapes, our cities of the dead have different types of architecture. Here, we describe and exhibit those "building" types.
The accounts of Ingraham (1835), Didimus (1845), Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley (1848-50), and Fredrika Bremer (1855) describe the beauty of the above ground tombs of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and 2. It is during this time that the well-read traveler was aware of cemetery advances in Paris at Père Lachaise, established in 1804, and the rural cemeteries such as Mt. Auburn (1831) in Massachusetts or Greenwood (1835) in Brooklyn, NY. It is also by the mid 1830s that the marble clad tombs designed by French émigré Jacques Nicolas Bussiere dePouilly were commissioned by prominent families for tombs in St. Louis Cemeteries No. 1 and 2 turning them into more monumental parks.
In the mid 1870s, George François Mugnier photographed St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, leaving us many images of the still active cemetery. The Society tombs that now dominate the view of the western section had already been built. Most family tombs seen in the Mugnier views are pediment tombs, or large platform and parapet tombs with multiple vaults, as many of the early single vault platform tombs had been "made-over" to accommodate multiple vault family burials. These "addition" tombs can be identified by changes in brick coursing or stucco, or tell-tale construction lines and odd placement of original tablets.
We went to the Catholic burying ground. The tombs here are peculiar to the place. — John H.B. Latrobe, ca. 1834
Tombs & Markers
In 1834, John H.B. Latrobe, the youngest son of Benjamin Latrabe, wrote:
No grave could be dug of the usual depth without coming to water, … the coffin is laid upon the surface of the ground, and a strong structure of brick built around it. This is then plastered and whitewashed.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 contains approximately 700 tombs, tomb ruins, and markers in small urban-like precincts. The tombs are owned by individuals, families, and societies, and most are aboveground and designed for multiple and repeated burials. Although there are a variety of tomb types and styles, most of these small 'buildings' are of soft, handmade local "river" or "lake" brick and high lime content mortar, covered with high lime, hydraulic lime, or natural cement content stucco.
A tomb is any mortuary structure that contains one or more burial vault(s). Tomb Typology is the study of tomb types based on distinguishing traits or characteristics. Typology is based on physical form, not use.
Multiple tiers of individual burial vaults of brick vault or stone slab construction, arranged to form a single block or perimeter enclosure wall.
A low, single-vault semi-subterranean tomb possessing a stepped or moulded top and a top slab or end tablet.
A single or multiple vault tomb possessing a raised parapet front concealing the roof behind.
A single or multiple vault tomb whose height is equal to or less than its width.
A single or double platform tomb resembling a sarcophagus, usually on a raised base.
A multiple vault tomb whose height is greater than its width and whose top is surmounted by an integrated front gable end pediment of flat, triangular or segmental design.
A Society Tomb is not a Tomb Type, and most of the famous Society Tombs are classified as Wall/Block Vaults since they contain multiple tiers of individual burial vaults, arranged to form a single block or wall. Society Tombs were built by social or communal groups to ensure that all members would have burial space and ceremony.
Any non-tomb mortuary structure which marks a below-grade burial, but does not contain an interment and whose form is often sculptural. Can be Simple or Compound.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 contains approximately 700 tombs, tomb ruins and markers in small urban-like precincts. Most of the lots contain tombs, which are structures that contains one or more burial vault(s). Markers are found primarily in the Protestant Section and are any non-tomb structure which marks a below-grade burial, but does not actually contain a body. A marker form is often sculptural.
A single element marker
- Headstone/footstone: An associated pair of upright slabs, usually of different height embedded in the ground or in a separate stone base, which defines the grave and is inscribed.
- Stele: A carved or inscribed stone slab or pillar used for commemorative purposes, taller and thinner than a headstone. Base not required.
- Plaque: Non-freestanding plain or ornamental tablet affixed to a wall or structure, but not a tomb/marker.
- Other: Any single architectural or sculptural form.
A multiple element marker.
- Table: A horizontal tablet supported by individual uprights, often in the form of a table.
- Basal: A horizontal tablet supported by a low solid wall base. (Resembles a platform tomb but does not house a burial within the structure.)
- Pyramid: A freestanding architectural form with four adjacent triangular walls that meet at a common apex and rest on a quadrilateral base.
- Die: Tomb with a prominent die, or middle portion of a pedestal between a base and the surbase, also called a dado.
- Pedestal: Any combination of column, obelisk, urn, or sculpture surmounting a pedestal or pedestal-base.
- Column: A full or truncated single pillar standing alone as a monument.
- Obelisk: A monumental, four-sided stone shaft, usually monolithic and tapering to a pyramidal tip.
- Other: Any architectural or sculptural combination.
There are over 100 tombs lots that are empty or in advanced ruin state. Tomb type was not identified for lots like these. Empty spaces that once was meant for a tomb were also surveyed.
The tombs in their Moorish dwellings, temples, chapels, palaces, mosques … and structures of almost every kind … Many of the tombs were … miniature Grecian temples; while others resembled French, or Spanish edifices, — Joseph Holt Ingraham, 1835
These vaults have a resemblance to houses—sometimes to temples; are built of marble, generally; are architecturally graceful and shapely;—Mark Twain, 1875
Since the late 1800s, guide books have been listing tombs of famous people in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. However, in addition to the tales of fame, money won and lost, wars and legal battles fought, and important civic achievements, there are many tombs that are important for their unique design, architecture, or ornamentation. St. Louis No. 1 is populated by a number of tombs of significant members of New Orleans society.
The survey found significant evidence that family tombs had been expanded and "updated" as the need for space grew, and as styles and fashions changed.
As families grew larger, and as the almost yearly outbreaks of yellow fever caused many deaths, the family tomb was often not large enough, or available. Space could be rented in the surrounding wall vaults until a family vault was free. However, there is also abundant physical evidence that families expanded their tombs over time. As need for space grew, more vaults could be added and the tomb could expand upward, and sometimes outward, on the same plot.
Additions were defined in the survey as "clear evidence of construction changes and major modifications made to the tomb/marker, intentionally changing or expanding the form or orientation." These additions tend to be historical, such as in the case of a step tomb changed into a pediment tomb, or the children's addition to a large society tomb. The evidence of these additions is based on visible irregularities of form or construction. Many tombs with added vaults have cracks in their stucco that coincide with the top of the original structure. These added vaults may also show evidence of different color campaigns or different weathering patterns from the original vaults. Evidence includes: irregular tier rhythm, mismatched brick, unusual mortar joints, different colored stuccos, mismatched closure tablets, variations on tomb typology. Evidence may also be reinforced by typology of adjacent tombs.
3D drawings have been made to study how many tombs have changed in type over time due to additions. More work continues on basic construction and masonry techniques.
Step Tomb - Platform
Platform - Platform/Sarcophagus
Platform - Raised Pediment
Platform - Parapet
Platform - Low Pediment
Platform - High Pediment
Pediment - Parapet
They are of bricks, much larger than necessary to enclose a single coffin and plastered over, so as to have a very solid and permanent appearance ..."—Benjamin H.B. Latrobe, 1819
Solid brick was the traditional structural masonry building material in New Orleans, as there was no local stone. Buildings seen in the earliest drawings show construction in wood, before brick was available locally. Stone or brick were not available in the lower Mississippi valley and along the Gulf Coast. Historical references differ slightly on the establishment of the first brickyard on Bayou St. John. One reference, taken from the Mississippi Provincial Archives,
The first brickyard was established outside New Orleans on Bayou St. John in September, 1726, employing several white artisans and fourteen black workers. During its first twenty-five months of operation, the yard produced 400,000 bricks.1
The majority of the tombs in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 are of brick construction covered with stucco. Tomb bricks range in quality, but most are hand molded, soft and porous. Early brick production traidionally relied on local clays and sands, and New Orleans bricks are no exception. The dominant materials used in the manufacture of the bricks are clays from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, producting the area's characteristic 'River Reds' and spotted tan-orange 'Lake Tans'. Lake bricks are typically more durable than the softer red River bricks.
Historically, mortar and stucco mixes contained three components: a binder, aggregate (sand) and water. Most mortar binders were lime, or a mixture of lime and clay/silt, while the more weather resistant stucco mixes tended to be of hydraulic lime or natural cements.
Opening quote: Benjamin Latrobe, March 8th, 1819. This quote can be found in 2 separate publications of the Latrobe’s Journals. From Samuel Wilson, Jr. ed. Impressions Respecting New Orleans by Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe: Diary & Sketches 1818-1820. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951), 82. and Edward C. Carter II, John C. Van Horne, and Lee W. Formwalt, eds. The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe 1799-1820 From Philadelphia to New Orleans, (New Haven: Yale University Press for the Maryland Historical Society, 1980), 241.
- 1. Mills Lane, Architecture of the Old South: Louisiana. (New York: Beehive Press, 1990), 23, quoting Dunbar Rowland and Albert Godfrey Sanders, Mississippi Provincial Archives, V, (Baton Rouge, 1984), 116.
The above text is adapted from Judith A. Peters, "Modeling of Tomb Decay at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1: The Role of Material Proeperties and the Environment," Masters thesis, University of Pennsylvania, August, 2002.
Plastered brick did not hold up too well in the swampy cemeteries; what is more, brick cannot be used for memorial figures. Thus it comes about that we find nearly all the good stonework of New Orleans in its burial grounds.—C. J. Laughlin, 1948
There are predominantly four types of stone found at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1: white marble imported from Europe is the most common, followed by dark gray limestone, slate, and granite. There is no dimensional stone in the New Orleans region, so all building stone was imported from Europe or the northern United States. Marble is a calcareous metamorphic rock, originating from sedimentary limestone. Marble became the stone of choice for its white color, fine texture and ease in carving. It was used for closure tablets, tablet surrounds, shelves, markers, statues and stone crosses and urns. Marble and limestone were also used as dimensional or veneer stone on more elaborate tombs.
Slate is a metamorphosed siltstone. Slate is a hard and dense stone and was used structurally to support the interior floors and ceilings of the vaults, as well as for precinct pavement. Many pediment roofs were flashed with slate as a waterproof barrier course.
Granite is an intrusive igneous rock that is extremely hard and dense. There is minimal evidence of its use historically at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1; however it has been introduced recently for new closure tablets on many re-built tombs.
Text adapted from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Guidelines for Preservation and Restoration.
Buildings are three-dimensional history books that reflect the comings and goings, successes and failures, aspirations and follies of real people. — Mills Lane, 1990.
"Researchers face a delimma in gathering historical data on the numerious brick masons, stonecutters, sculptors, and architects who worked in the early cemeteries."1
The field survey noted the few visual markings of architect, builder, mason, sculptor or metalwork designer/builder names. Additional archival and literature research yielded names of key builders known to be working in the St. Louis Cemeteries in the nineteenth century, however, most tombs in the site could not be exactly identified as to the craftspeople involved.
During the SAT project, local masons, plasterers, sculptors and metal workers were used to repair historic materials and to restore and replicate missing elements. The masons, Royal and Perrault, both come from families long involved in the above ground tombs of New Orleans, with Perrault being a direct descendant of the historic builder, Perrault, and the family tomb (#355) was one of the pilot tombs. The marble sculptor, Henderson, and the metal artisans recreated missing decorative elements. Care was taken to ensure that no mistaken historic identity was created. Using methods and design input of the past, they re-created new pieces of art.
Opening quote: Mills Lane, Architecture of the Old South: Louisiana. New York: Beehive Press, 1990.
1. Peggy McDowell, "Influences on 19th-century Funerary Architecture," New Orleans Architecture: Vol. III The Cemeteries, M. Christovich ed. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1997.