In the 1870s, George François Mugnier and Samuel T. Blessing photographed St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, providing evocative images of grand architectural monuments in a crowded landscape.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the cemetery had become increasingly urban as the ground cover present in Latrobe's 1834 watercolor gave way to rapid development of the cemetery accompanying the epidemics of the mid to late nineteenth century. The loss of the cemetery's pastoral quality led to an increased allocation of the purchased tomb area to be used to endow the tomb with its own landscape setting, often distilled to the symbolic placement of a few plants, a shrub, or even plant cuttings attached to the tomb itself.
The memorial function of the cemetery's tombscape gives it a context of a unique character, reflecting an approach to design that, in addition to its practical functions, seeks to order the incomprehensible phenomenon of death. The reasoned application of classical decorative modes and orthogonal path planning has become disoriented, resulting in the tombscape, a dynamic jumble of form, space, and context. The east facade of the Italian Society Tomb and the Conti Alley Tombscape are examples showing the variety in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 tombscapes in past and current images. Also, see Alley 9L Tombscape restoration work.
Italian Society Tomb
Defined by the presence of the Italian Society Tomb façade and a perimeter of surrounding tombs that are over three tiers height, for a feeling of enclosure and spatial definition. The area takes on the quality of a formal plaza.
Conti Alley Tombscape
The Conti Alley tombscape seen looking from the south to the northwest corner of the cemetery shows the plantings and immortelles that once decorated so many of the tombs in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. This viewscape is remarkably intact, although much of the ornamentation and ironwork has disappeared.
Alley 9-L tombscape
Alley 9-L, where the large society and family tombs frame the area and create a distinct volume of space, expansive by the cemetery's standards. There is a strong interplay of tomb scale, endowing the tombscape a heightened feeling of mass and monumentality.
It (St. Louis Cemetery No. 1) opens its gates only at the knock of an heir, so to speak; gives harbourage only to those who can claim a resting place by the side of an ancestor. — Grace King, 1895
Historically, maintenance occurred yearly during All Saints' Day when families cleaned, repaired, and limewashed their tombs. This yearly attention kept the tombs well sealed and protected the interior structure from the aggressive New Orleans environment.
The many family and society tombs that dominate the cemetery today indicate the tremendous wealth and power New Orleans attained by the mid nineteenth century. Like its urban counterpart, many of the early single vault tombs were expanded with additions to become multiple vault family tombs to allow for repeated burials in a place of decidedly limited space.
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. 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 on the same plot.
By the end of the nineteenth century, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 had fallen out of use from overcrowding and the public’s preference for more fashionable cemeteries on the outskirts of the city. As interment activity declined, so did visitation and yearly family maintenance activities that were so crucial to the upkeep of the tombs.
Opening quote: Grace King, New Orleans: The Place and the People. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1895.