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Homewood Cemetery tree-cutting plan rankles landscapers

Wednesday, August 29, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

In removing hundreds of trees from Homewood Cemetery, its chief operating officer says he’s just following a plan devised by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Not exactly, says the man who wrote the March 1998 analysis of existing conditions and recommendations for landscape restoration.

“I’ve never seen clearing done in a historic landscape with such a broad brush,” said Barry Hannegan, PHLF’s director of historic design programs.

Hannegan and PHLF horticulturist Greg Yochum served as consultants to the project, working with Landmarks Design Associates, which developed a preservation plan for the buildings, drives and infrastructure. The group recommended the work, estimated to cost $2.8 million, be done over a 10-year period to spread out the cost, with stabilization achieved first and restoration later.

Established in 1878 on what had been part of Judge William Wilkins’ estate, Homewood Cemetery was designed as a lawn or park cemetery, with no mounded graves and no stone coping or fences around graves to break up the unified landscape.

To create the cemetery, the heavily wooded Wilkins land was virtually clear cut. Most of the mature trees that exist today were planted by William Allen, superintendent from 1907 to 1935, a Welshman who had worked at London’s Kew Gardens and a former manager of Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery.

America’s first landscaped cemetery, Mount Auburn in 1831 pioneered the rural, romantic style that soon replaced the overcrowded, unkempt, urban graveyards and churchyards. As much a pleasure ground for the living as a reliquary for the dead, Mount Auburn featured fenced plots and monuments in a sylvan setting of winding roads, trees, shrubs and ponds.

In 1855, the superintendent of Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery banished the individual plot fences that were giving cemeteries a cluttered, chaotic appearance. Adolph Strauch’s “lawn plan” heralded a new kind of cemetery, with headstones under 2 feet high and the occasional taller monuments and sculptures set in an open, park-like landscape of meadows and gently rolling hills.

Homewood remains Pittsburgh’s only lawn and park cemetery, although later parts developed according to the fashion of the day, with geometrically patterned, art deco-inspired sections, mausoleums, flush markers and urn gardens added in the 20th century.

“Through the years the cemetery does reflect these various philosophies, and that’s why we’re so unique” in Western Pennsylvania, said assistant treasurer and cemetery archivist Marilyn Evert, co-author of “Discovering Pittsburgh’s Sculpture.”

And while Homewood banned fences, it did allow families to install trees and shrubs on their plots. Over time, many of the cemetery’s trees, either self-seeded or planted by William Allen or by plot owners, have become overgrown, diseased or storm-damaged.

With buildings also needing attention, the cemetery turned to Landmarks Design Associates for a plan for structures and landscape. While Hannegan’s landscape report establishes guidelines, it is not a working document with tree-by-tree recommendations.

Because there was no documentation for the landscape design beyond the cemetery’s collection of historic photographs, “We recommended the reinforcement of historic elements where we could perceive them,” Hannegan said. “For example, we urged the re-establishment of the row of sycamore trees [planted along Dallas Avenue in the 1920s]. They had lost their identity as a major boundary feature and we thought that should be recovered.”

While the report suggests the cemetery “re-establish the line of sycamore along Dallas Avenue by planting new trees where earlier ones have been lost,” nowhere does it recommend the removal of all of the trees except the sycamores.

Still, much of the clearing of the dense, volunteer trees, while shocking, was necessary to protect the graves and tombstones they had grown up around and to prevent further damage to the cemetery’s perimeter iron fence.

Stump grinding along Dallas is under way, and when the 66 new sycamores, each 6 to 8 feet tall, are planted this fall and spring, the fence repaired and the tombstones reset, the changes will have been a long-term improvement. On a tour of the cemetery last week, Hannegan said planting hydrangeas under the sycamore canopy would buffer and soften the transition between street and cemetery.

William Heinnickel, the cemetery’s chief operating officer, said trees will be cut along the cemetery’s other borders “if they become an annoyance or interfere with the plan.” While there is no immediate plan to cut trees along Forbes Avenue, some will be cut eventually because they’re interfering with phone and power lines. The LDA report makes no specific recommendations for trees along Forbes.

“I really haven’t looked at Forbes yet,” Heinnickel said. “I selected Dallas first because that’s where our front gate is and I want that to be the nicest.”

The landscape around the cemetery’s three granite mausoleums also has been significantly altered, with dozens of evergreen trees, mostly yews, removed.

The LDA report advocates “a careful, knowledgeable program of pruning,” then adds, “Failing this, the existing materials should be removed and replaced by less vigorous types.”

Heinnickel said the yews will be replanted, perhaps as early as next spring or fall. He said a mature maple and pin oak also were cut down because they were dropping leaves onto the roofs and causing leaks. The mausoleums’ roofs will be replaced.

Evergreens — hemlocks and yews — adjacent to the administration and chapel buildings were removed, according to the report, which advised these trees had “grown beyond [their] desired role as an ornamental setting for the buildings.” The cemetery has asked garden designer Marley Wolff to create a planting plan for this area, based on historic photographs.

At the pond area, near the main entrance on Dallas, LDA’s recommendations were to “remove all invasive plant materials from the small grove to the west of the pond including wild grape vine and ‘nuisance trees’ such as ailanthus” and “prune existing mature trees.”

Instead, the area around the pond was leveled, and what had been a wild bird habitat with mature mulberry, cherry and maple trees is now a barren landscape.

“There were trees there that would have created a little backdrop for the pond,” Hannegan said.

Heinnickel said he had the trees cut down because they were a safety hazard.

“You had a blind curve that you couldn’t see around,” he said.

Thinning the trees and removing the grapevine, however, would have achieved the same end.

Hannegan also recommended planting eight willows along the south edge of the pond, in keeping with its 1920s appearance, when willows surrounded the pond. Heinnickel hopes to plant a dozen willows around the pond, and that will be done in October, weather and manpower permitting. The cemetery also plans to dredge and restore the pond; what was once a reflecting pool is thick with cattails and water lilies that almost entirely cover its surface.

Throughout the cemetery, about 200 storm-damaged and diseased trees will be removed, following the LDA report.

While the report also recommends identifying and labeling with botanical names about 100 trees throughout the cemetery, Heinnickel said he has no plans to do so. That should be reconsidered, because it would acknowledge and interpret the cemetery as the informal arboretum it has become, and could be done at no great expense.

It also would be a gesture of goodwill to the neighborhood, which still is grieving the unanticipated loss of the trees and bird habitat.

While privately owned, the nonprofit cemetery is viewed by many as an extension of adjacent Frick Park. Neighbors have a sense of ownership about the place, but they don’t have a say. Heinnickel doesn’t expect to give them one because he believes public input would be too diverse to be helpful.

Maybe so. But in the interest of being a good neighbor, the cemetery could keep its neighbors better informed.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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