Category: Historical Collections & Archives

Washington Tower: Landmark, Observatory, and Cenotaph

Washington Tower: Landmark, Observatory, and Cenotaph
March 4, 2024

Above image: Washington Tower, Arthur Cushman Haskell, 1937.

In 1831, the year Mount Auburn was established, its founders “proposed to erect on the summit of Mount Auburn, a Tower, after some classic model, of sufficient height to rise above the tops of the surrounding trees. This will serve the double purpose of a landmark to identify the spot from a distance, and of an observatory, commanding an uninterrupted view of the country around it.”[1] The Garden and Cemetery Committee, responsible for the design and layout of the new cemetery, described the summit as “the most lofty eminence . . . 125 feet above the Charles River, which gracefully sweeps round its gently sloping base.”[2]

Henry A. S. Dearborn, a founder of the Cemetery, envisioned the tower as a cenotaph (monument in honor of a person buried elsewhere) to the country’s first president George Washington. “At some future period, when the munificence of the citizens shall be commensurate with their debt of patriotic gratitude this structure may perhaps give place for a stupendous monument . . . there will be reared the cenotaph of Washington, in massive blocks of granite.”[3]

Hand-written invoice for $75 in brown ink on pale blue paper
Invoice for a set of plans and working drawings, Gridley J. F. Bryant to the Proprietors of Mount Auburn Cemetery, 1852.

Another two decades would pass before the trustees voted to proceed with building the Tower in 1852.[4] Bigelow, a founder of Mount Auburn and its second president, collaborated on the design and construction of the structure with Gridley J. F. Bryant, an architect and industrial engineer, who also worked with Bigelow on the Cemetery’s first chapel. M. S. Dodd, a carpenter, built a wooden model, and Bryant created a set of plans and drawings. At a reported expense of approximately $22,000, Whitcher & Sheldon, contractors from Quincy, Massachusetts, erected the 62-foot granite tower with a granite platform at its base and stairs leading to the entrance.[5] The Tower measured 25 feet in diameter at the bottom and 15 feet in diameter at the top.

Black-and-white print of landscape with tower on hill and long stairs with carriages on road below. People are climbing stairs to the entrance and on the tower ramparts. Trees are to either side and clouds are in the sky
The Tower, Guide Through Mount Auburn, Bricher and Russell, woodcut, 1864.

For the design of Mount Auburn, Bigelow and Dearborn found inspiration in the English picturesque landscape, where summits and towers were commonly featured.[6] Historian Blanche M. G. Linden notes that the Cemetery’s topography “was ideal for creating a landscape in the English fashion, a standard feature of which was a ‘mount’ or high point . . . . Often a temple, pavilion, or tower was built atop it, providing a place for contemplation of the sublime, deemed inherent in distant horizons.”[7]

Bigelow described the historical associations of the Tower as an English Norman Revival structure that was “built on the general plan of some of the round towers of the feudal ages, and contains a gallery, battlements, Gothic windows, and a spiral staircase of stone.” [8] He praised the construction of the Tower in which “the stones are smooth hammered on both sides, so that each stone makes a part of both the inside and outside surface of the wall. The horizontal surfaces of all the stones being level and true, it is impossible that any structure, of the same materials, should be more substantial.”[9]

Black-and-white photograph of interior stone spiral stairwell with iron handrail
Interior Stairwell of Washington Tower, Paul Wainwright, 2004.

As originally intended, the Tower was placed on the highest summit, which the founders named Mount Auburn, and above the deep hollow of Consecration Dell, thereby amplifying its presence within the Cemetery. Situated on the 125-foot summit, the 62-foot structure reached a height of 187 feet. No competing structures were located near it. As Bigelow advised, “It is justly considered important to the good appearance of these principal edifices, such as the Tower, the Chapel, and the Gate, that no inferior structures should be placed so near them, as to interfere with, or impair their isolated effect.”[10]

Print of a cemetery landscape with monuments, trees, plants, and a tower on high summit. A small deep dell and pond are below.
View from Consecration Dell, Prang & Meyer, lithograph, 1859.

Inside, the spiral staircase leading to two outside galleries with battlements, one at forty feet and the other at the top, offered breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding area. The founders envisioned:

From the foot of this monument will be seen in detail the features of the landscape, as they are successively presented through the different vistas which have been opened among the trees, while from its summit, a magnificent and unbroken panorama, embracing one of the most delightful tracts in New England, will be spread out beneath the eye. Not only the contiguous country, but the harbor and bay of Boston, with their ships and islands, and, in a clear atmosphere, the distant mountains of Wachusett, and probably even of Monadnock, will be comprehended within the range of vision.[11]

Photograph of cemetery landscape with monuments, paths, trees, curbing, and a chapel. In the background is a pond with hills in the distance
View from Washington Tower, stereograph detail, 1898.

Joseph Story, the first president of Mount Auburn, wrote of the symbolic meaning of the summit: “In the distance, the City―at once the object of our admiration and our love, ―rears its proud eminences. . . . We stand, as it were, upon the border of two worlds; and as the mood of our minds may be, we may gather lessons of profound wisdom by contrasting the one with the other.”[12] Upon its completion in 1854, the Tower took its place, along with the Bunker Hill Monument, as one of the two tallest structures in the Boston area. It continues to serve, as Bigelow eloquently expressed:

as a landmark, by which the place of the Cemetery is designated in the distance. It identifies the spot which is already the resting place of thousands. It is a centre to which mourning hearts and eyes are daily turned, of those who would fain seek in its shadow for what remains on earth of their children and kindred.[13]

Photograph of stone tower on a hill with stairway leading to the entrance door and two women with parasols in front of the entry door. Trees to either side
Washington Tower, stereograph detail, circa 1870s.

[1] In Jacob Bigelow, A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn (Boston and Cambridge: James Munroe and Company, 1859), 16.

[2] Report of the Garden and Cemetery Committee, September 30, 1831, Transactions of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, 77.

[3] Henry A. S. Dearborn, Massachusetts Horticultural Society Report, October 1, 1831, published in New England Farmer, Oct 5, 1831.

[4] In the intervening years, funds were devoted to the construction of the Egyptian Revival Gateway in 1832 and the first chapel in 1844, both designed by Jacob Bigelow.

[5] Whitcher & Sheldon also worked on the renovation of Bigelow Chapel. Bigelow, 60.

[6] See Blanche M. G. Linden, Silent City on A Hill: Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 229.

[7] Linden, 144.

[8] Bigelow, 60-61.

[9] Bigelow, 60-61.

[10] Bigelow, 99.

[11] Bigelow, 17.

[12] Joseph Story, “An Address Delivered on the Dedication of the Ceremony at Mount Auburn, September 24, 1831” in Bigelow, A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn, 162.

[13] Bigelow, 60. Repairs to the Tower over the years have included repointing of the granite and repair of the wooden windows. In 2007, Mount Auburn created the Wildflower Meadow, a one-acre garden surrounding the Tower that includes native shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses.

Cornelia Wells Walter: Author of Mount Auburn Illustrated, 1847

Cornelia Wells Walter: Author of Mount Auburn Illustrated, 1847
February 15, 2024

Caption for above image: Cornelia Walter (Mrs. William B. Richards), oil on canvas by Thomas Ball, ca. 1850. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Cornelia Wells Walter (1813-1898), the author of one of Mount Auburn’s earliest guidebooks Mount Auburn Illustrated, stands out as a formidable woman’s voice in mid-nineteenth-century Boston. In 1843 at age 29, Walter became editor of the Boston Evening Transcript, the city’s daily afternoon paper.[1] She is considered the first woman in the country to be editor of a major newspaper. Walter assumed the role after the death of her brother Lynde Walter, the paper’s former editor with whom she shared an affectionate bond.[2]


Unfolding Views of Mount Auburn: Nineteenth-Century Souvenir Books

Unfolding Views of Mount Auburn: Nineteenth-Century Souvenir Books
January 26, 2024

Among the many treasures in Mount Auburn’s Historical Collections & Archives are souvenir albums dating to the 1880s. Picturesque views of the Cemetery magically fan out from inside the accordion books. The colorful album covers, with tooled leather bindings and “Mt. Auburn” embossed in gold, add to the charming quality of these intimate keepsakes that can be held in the palm of one’s hand.[1]

Four small Mt Auburn photo albums, each with a different color cover: red, blue, green, and brown, and one opened album showing four 19th-century cemetery views in sepia, with titles below, on an accordion page.

An Almost Perfect Circle: Halcyon Lake

An Almost Perfect Circle: Halcyon Lake
July 28, 2023

Visitors never fail to marvel at the tranquil beauty of Halcyon Lake. Over time, major design and preservation efforts, inspired by changing aesthetic tastes and practical needs, have shaped and protected the distinct character of one of Mount Auburn’s most iconic landscapes.

Detail of a topographic plan showing roads, paths, and a pond with three lobes.
Plan of Mount Auburn, Alexander Wadsworth, 1831.

Halcyon Lake was not always circular in shape. An 1831 map reveals that the Lake made up the eastern half of what was once called Garden Pond, a prominent, more expansive body of water in the northeastern corner of the original 72 acres of the Cemetery. The Pond, which consisted of three lobes, extended west from the present-day Coolidge Avenue all the way to Story Chapel and the Administration Building. Wooded areas bordered the south side of the Pond, and to the north, lay the Horticultural Society’s Experimental Garden, which by 1835 was no longer maintained by the Cemetery. Early guidebook illustrations depict the Pond surrounded with flowering plants and with a picturesque wooden bridge leading to a small island.  

Black and white print of a pond surrounded by trees with a bridge leading to an island in the center of the pond.
Garden Pond, Stranger’s Guidebook, 1839.

Annual Reports in the 1850s, however, began recording the presence of stagnant, muddy water in the western area of the Pond, and in 1855-1856, the Cemetery decided to fill in the western-most lobe.[1] Jacob Bigelow, Mount Auburn’s President at the time, outlined the renovation:

The westerly portion of Garden Pond, near Central Avenue, has justly been considered a blemish to Mount Auburn, on account of the stagnant condition of the water, and the muddiness of the banks and bottom. A contract has been made for filling up this pond with gravel from the neighboring hill, for the sum of $850. The earth will be raised to six and a half feet above the present surface of the water, by which operation the Corporation will gain more than an acre of valuable land in one of the most eligible parts of the Cemetery.[2]

Plan of Mount Auburn, Alexander Wadsworth, 1854.

While the Cemetery had laid out a significant number of burial lots in its first decades, by the 1850s, the area around Garden Pond had remained relatively undeveloped. As Bigelow remarked, filling in the western lobe would reclaim additional land for interment space. The Annual Report for the following year noted the area “constituting one of the most desirable parts of the Mount Auburn” was being surveyed and lots around it would be offered for sale.[3]

In 1862, the Trustees voted to further alter Garden Pond into a circular waterbody ornamented with granite edges and a gravel bottom. The Annual Report for 1864 announced: “A new avenue called Halcyon Avenue has been commenced on the easterly side of what has heretofore been called Garden Pond, and many lots have been sold and finished upon it. By a prospective plan . . . this avenue is to be continued around a circular water basin called Halcyon Lake.”[4] Another word for peaceful and calm, “Halcyon” became a popular name for other rural cemeteries modeled after Mount Auburn.

A series of maps document the evolution of the Pond as it was shaped into a circular body of water. In 1870, Ernest Bowditch, a civil engineer from the offices of Shedd & Sawyer, began to survey and lay out Halcyon Lake using a clothesline and stakes. [5] He remembered, “When I looked at the working drawing and realized Halcyon Lake was a perfect circle, I had a chill run down my spine.”[6] While the perfect circle was not entirely achieved, the Lake nonetheless became a pleasing rounded shape.

Four plans (1846, 1860, 1874, and 1990s) showing the evolution of the oblong shape of Garden Pond into the circular form of Halcyon Lake.
Four plans (1846, 1860, 1874, and 1990s) showing the evolution of the oblong shape of Garden Pond into the circular form of Halcyon Lake.

Further improvements to the Lake took place over several years in the 1870s. Like many of the distinct landscapes within Mount Auburn, the design of Halcyon Lake and its surrounding areas evolved from practical, as well as aesthetic, considerations. Trustees voted at a meeting in July 1875, for example, that the sale of nearby lots could be made with the stipulation that no fences or curbs would ever be placed around the lots.[7] By the 1870s, granite curbing around the edges of ponds in Mount Auburn fell out of favor and was substituted with graveled edges. The overall effect was a more open and unified picturesque landscape, which came to be populated with monuments that included mausoleums, columns, an altar, and an obelisk.

Black-and-white photograph of the shore of a lake with trees and plants, showing a white circular memorial with columns on the far side. The memorial is reflected in the water.
Halcyon Lake, Postcard, 1934.

Among the striking landmarks on the banks of Halcyon Lake is that of the Mary Baker Eddy Memorial. Mary Baker Eddy, discoverer and founder of the Church of Christ Scientist, had requested that “a beautiful burial lot” be secured for her at Mount Auburn.[8] When she died in 1910, a lot for her memorial was purchased at Halcyon Lake. From 1915 to 1917, a magnificent circular colonnade, complementing the shape of the Lake, was built from a design by architect Egerton Swartwout. In 1946, the Christian Science Church purchased a viewing lot across the Lake, designed by landscape architect Sidney Shurcliff with plantings and granite steps that offered striking views of the Memorial.

In 1915, part of the Lake was filled in and in 1918, a fountain was installed for a short time as a picturesque feature as well as to help to clear the water. In 1998, the extensive rehabilitation of the areas near the Lake by Reed-Hilderbrand landscape architects included new plantings and the removal of damaged trees and invasive shrubs to improve water quality and habitat diversity and reinforce visual and spatial connections between the Lake and its surroundings. In 1999, Halcyon Lake was dredged, and in 2000, aeration pumps were installed for better water quality.

Black-and-white photograph of a cemetery landscape with memorials. large trees, and plantings around a lake.
Halcyon Lake in Spring, Alan Ward, c. 1970-1980s.

The area surrounding Halcyon Lake today reflects a landscape style that is less naturalistic, or rural, than Mount Auburn’s early design which according to historian Shary Page Berg “was largely in the picturesque style, where darkness, intricacy and complexity were valued.” Berg notes, “By the late nineteenth century the landscape of Mount Auburn had evolved into the gardenesque style. . . . At Mount Auburn, this period was characterized by large areas of grass with occasional trees, accented by beds of annuals and other exotic species selected.”[9] Among the diverse species of magnificent deciduous trees and flowering shrubs that frame the Lake are Sawara Falsecypress, Purple European Beech, Smoothleaf Elm, Golden Weeping Willow, Slender Deutzia, and Ginkgo. Meg Winslow, Curator of Historical Collections & Archives, adds, “The design emphasis was on the natural beauty and shape of individual plants and a mature tree canopy with no dense understory, which allowed for open views of the water, trees, and monuments.”

Through all seasons, visitors discover enchanting vistas that have been created and preserved over the years through the thoughtful balance of art and nature surrounding and reflected in the circular lake. The word Halcyon (calmness and serenity) and Halcyon Days (idyllic times of the past) come to mind from the feelings evoked by this ethereal Mount Auburn landscape. 

Color photograph of a lake in spring with flowering plants and tree branches in the foreground and large trees, smaller flowering trees, and monuments on the far side of the lake.
Halcyon Lake, Melissa Banta, May 2015.

[1] In 1860s, the completion of a drain connecting Garden Pond to Auburn Lake (then Meadow Pond) helped with drainage issues as well.

[2] Jacob Bigelow, A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn. Boston and Cambridge: James Munroe and Company, 1859, 91.

[3] Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn. Boston: J. H Eastburn’s Press, January 1859, 5.

[4] Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn. January 1865, 3.

[5] Ernest Bowditch, Diary and explanation of survey of Halcyon Lake, Historical Collections & Archives, Mount Auburn Cemetery.

[6] Personal Reminiscences, vol. 1, Ernest Bowditch Papers, Essex Institute in Kevin D. Murphy, “Ernest W. Bowditch and the Practice of Landscape Architecture.” Essex Institute Historical Collections, vol. 125, no. 2, 1989, 165.

[7] Mount Auburn Trustee Minutes, July 19, 1875.

[8] Document LO6475. Collection of the Church History Department, The First Church of Christ, Scientist.

[9] Shary Page Berg, Mount Auburn Cemetery Master Plan 1993, Vol. II, 35.