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Monday, March 16, 2009

Albany Rural Cemetery

Sunday was a beautiful, springlike day and the outdoors beckoned. Instead of going to the new Hudson River Panorama exhibition at the Albany Institute of History & Art, off we went to the Albany Rural Cemetery, where many architectural, sculptural and stained-glass marvels of the 19th century accompany the dead and delight the living year-round.

I spent my teen years living very close by Albany Rural, and I know it intimately from countless visits and endless hours spent hanging out in its sylvan setting. I learned to handle skids there on its gravel roads, and I learned a little history there, too.

But this column is about art, and the cemetery is full of that, from the very famous angel statue on the Corning grave site (by Institute stalwart Erastus Dow Palmer) to the massive bronze sepulchre of President Chester A. Arthur to the innumerable lesser monuments featuring figures, miniature churches, realistic tree trunks, drapery, and so on and on, all carved in solid stone and exposed to the elements, which destroy but also add a nice patina (see photo above right).

Now I expect contemporary sculptors will take little solace in this, but it is unfortunately too rare that sculpture gets shown, seen, or commented upon in the local media, so here I am touting the three-dimensional wonders that are spread out all over the 467 acres of this parklike cemetery that has welcomed visitors since its incorporation in 1841.

Among my favorite sites, there is a rather elaborate and creative mausoleum and monument for the Rensselaer County industrialist Henry Burden, which incorporates curly-haired dogs, vases for fresh flowers, and a huge carved book posed on a huge carved pillow. The book is open and has the stories of Burden's life and that of his wife on facing pages. The monument looks toward the river, and across to where Burden made his vast fortune in iron. Look for it along the lower hill of the cemetery, not too far from the main entrance on Broadway in Menands.

Another great one, in a row of mausoleums not far from the Cemetery's south entrance at the intersection of routes 377 and 378, is the clean, boxy Hilton mausoleum, which features a fabulous bronze door with an Art Deco motif. These fancier mausoleums often include stained glass, but to see it you usually need to get right up there and peer in - try it on a sunny day and you'll get some nice colors. And I can't prove it, but I suspect a few may even be by Tiffany.

Architecturally speaking, some of the fun is generated by the fact that these "buildings" are for show, not so much for function, and their designers got to fool around a lot with quirky details (see photo above left).
Much of it is neo-classical, which I like just fine, but there's stuff with a futuristic edge as well. One game I used to play was to see how many sphere-shaped monuments I could find; there're also a few pyramids, and there are so many obelisks (you know, like the Washington Monument) that they become mundane. Which is too bad because, if you think about it, just one of the bigger obelisks in Albany Rural would be a local landmark if it happened to be on State Street, let's say, rather than out there in the woods near Loudonville.

So, if you feel like a drive and a walk, keep Albany Rural on your list of places to visit. There are maps available at the entrances, or you can download one from the website. Also, there is a friends group, which you can join and support, as these beautiful things do fall apart over the years, and they will never have enough time and money to maintain it all.


Roger Owen Green said...

I haven't been there in YEARS. Need to do so!

Anonymous said...

I've always known about Albany Rural, but I got a new camera and have been going there the past month or so and people think I'm crazy for going to a cemetary! Thank you for your reassuring post that I'm not crazy.

david brickman said...


I'm glad I could help to make you feel less abnormal! Hope you got some good pictures.