This article is part of a series on How Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery Is Reinventing Itself. It is based on an interview with Ross Mitchell, Executive Director of Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, PA.
Stoneangels: You have an artifact exhibit in the building next door-I remember seeing things when we were over there taking donated items down to the Gravedigger’s Ball auction.
Ross Mitchell: Actually it is a museum, an exhibit. We have incredible archives going all the way back to 1836. We have everything-we have all the obituaries, letters, we have maps, blueprints, glass plates, we have photographs going back as far as… photography goes back! We have the copper plates for all the ads going way back, we have journals. We have a Mitchell’s International Almanac from 1850 with maps of Philadelphia and New York. New York City stops at Houston Street near the [Greenwich] Village.
Stoneangels: So what was below Houston Street?
Ross Mitchell: That was the city! The city was below Houston! There was nothing above it! There was no Midtown Manhattan! I saw another old Philadelphia map. You know why it’s called Robin Hood Dell? This was the old Ridge Road [in front of Laurel Hill], and there was an old tavern called the Robin Hood Tavern right next to the cemetery. They named the Robin Hood Dell for the Robin Hood Tavern. We’d love to display more of our collection, if we had the time and manpower.
Stoneangels: I’d be happy to volunteer to help. I’ve been locked in the safe a couple times and have seen your rooms of artifacts and records. Years ago I needed to open my camera back to un-jam a roll of film, so I asked Leo, the person working at the front desk, if he thought the vault was light tight. He offered to lock me in and it worked great! Sometimes you just have to trust people…
Stoneangels: Let me ask you about Tiffany stained glass in the mausoleums. Do you know if there is any?
Ross Mitchell: There were! There were seven Tiffany stained glass windows and in the 1970s an article came out identifying where all the Tiffany stained glass windows were across the country in cemeteries. Within a number of years, they were all stolen. But apparently Tiffany keeps very detailed records and photos of all of their products. We are in the process of contacting them to get copies of those images that I will post on the Stolen Art Network. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get them back and maybe not.
Stoneangels: In 1999 a Tiffany stained glass window worth $660,000 was stolen from a mausoleum in Brooklyn.
Ross Mitchell: Wow. All of our missing windows have been replaced with glass block. Nothing is less romantic.
Stoneangels: At least you didn’t do what they did in West Philly where they replaced them with cinder block!
Ross Mitchell: That could be less romantic. When you look into a mausoleum and the sun is coming through the stained glass it really is a very special event.
“…not all cemeteries are very depressing places. In fact I think this one is really a celebration of life.”
Stoneangels: I only recently started appreciating the subtler things in cemeteries like the stained glass.
Ross Mitchell: One of the tours we’ve been talking about doing is having our superintendent Bill Doran, who is this great Irish stonemason give a “Behind the Scenes” tour of the cemetery. He’s got all of these great stories about working here. Like the time he was working in one of the mausoleums. One of the crypt covers had fallen off so he was doing some repair work in it and it was totally dark in there and the door closed and he heard this noise behind him! He just ran out of there! Apparently it was a fox or opossum that had gotten into the crypt. He said he was never so scared in his whole life!
Stoneangels: I can’t picture anything scaring Bill!
Ross Mitchell: Neither could I. He has these great stories about the logistics of working in the cemetery. The “Behind the Scenes Tour with the Superintendent” is not on the schedule yet but we’re working on it.