Contributions By Erin Moio and All Photographs By Erin Moio
Breathtaking, panoramic vistas typically do not come to mind when thinking about cemeteries, but then, Homewood Cemetery is more than a final resting place, it is an historic landmark with a unique mission and a fascinating history.
Opened for business in 1878, Homewood Cemetery was purposefully situated on more than 200 acres of land between neighborhoods of the enormously wealthy and prestigious families of Pittsburgh. It’s design was intended to provide the living with a proper space within which to visit their dearly departed while also serving as a green space sanctuary for respite and reflection amidst a growing industrialized city choked by pollutants and covered in a grimy layer of soot.
While air quality has improved and measures have been taken through the city parks projects to expand urban green spaces, Homewood Cemetery continues pursuing a part of its original mission of providing a free and public natural escape from the noise and bustle of its otherwise urban setting.
It is a mission not lost on the current staff of Homewood Cemetery who remain committed to its original dual purpose. “We feel it is part of our responsibility to be a place where people can come and enjoy solace, meditate or just escape,” said Jennie Benford, Homewood Cemetery’s Historical Fund’s Director of Programming.
Benford has spent more than twenty years at Homewood Cemetery in various roles and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the grounds and the copious history of the interred and their fascinating pasts.
One of the more rewarding parts of Benford’s role at Homewood Cemetery is when she is able to dispel several myths about the cemetery including the most popular – that one must be very wealthy to purchase a plot at Homewood Cemetery – or that the cemetery is full or private.
To the contrary, the grounds are, as they always have been, free and open to the public whether it is to attend an event, take a guided tour, visit a gravesite or simply walk or bike through the more than nine miles of roadway winding through the cemetery.
Also, Homewood Cemetery is not an exclusive club. Those wishing to bury themselves, their loved ones or entire families at Homewood Cemetery will find affordable options to meet their needs. And there is plenty of space to accommodate the recently departed. Despite more than 78,000 interred, the cemetery is only about one-third full.
A registered arboretum, Homewood Cemetery is a magnificent landscape to explore the gravesites of some of Pittsburgh’s most famous and notorious characters. The cemetery was founded as a non-denominational, non-exclusionary resting place, and Benford has shifted the focus of an annual tradition at the cemetery – a guided walking tour – away from some of the more famous interred to the women of the famous Section 14.
Section 14, the high-rent district of Homewood Cemetery, is the final resting place for some of the titans of Pittsburgh industry and society. Names like Carnegie, Mellon, Heinz, Pitcairn and Frick populate Section 14 which is the most asked about and popular spot for visitors to explore.
The family plots at Homewood Cemetery are marked by a family stone – a cenotaph – with the interred in plots arranged around the family marker. Section 14 residents have some of the most impressive cenotaphs in the cemetery and some of the most interesting histories of those interred.
The walking tour is well worth any Pittsburgher’s time, and is a perfect place for visitors to the city to learn about a part of its history while exploring a local landmark. All part of what makes Pittsburgh beautiful.
A few highlights from the walking tour:
Margaret Boyle Brown
Wife of Pittsburgh coal magnate, William Harry Brown, for whom Brownsville is named, Margaret Boyle Brown made a name for herself in the years following her husband’s death in 1921, but not in Pittsburgh. Ms. Brown, whose mission during World War I included helping French orphans find a better life, became an expatriate living in London, England where, it is widely rumored, she introduced the infamous Wallis Simpson to Edward, the Prince of Wales who would succeed his father, England’s King George V, to the throne and immediately caused a crisis by proposing marriage to Ms. Simpson. Edward VIII abdicated his crown after only 326 days on the throne to marry Ms. Simpson in 1937. Ms. Brown returned to Pittsburgh shortly thereafter where she died in 1938.
Perhaps as fascinating a story as there is in the cemetery, the story of Agnes Taylor is one that must be heard. An unguided tour of the grounds would not yield an Agnes Taylor sighting because she is only in Section 14 because of her former employer, Dr. Robert Woods. Woods’ marker is unique and obvious, and his self-written, extremely negative epitaph is as interesting as it is bizarre. Woods stipulated that only he and his wife may be marked by a headstone, but that two others, Agnes Taylor among them, may be buried in the family plot as long as they agree to have no marker. Taylor, an African-American nurse, along with her sister, began operating the Agnes Taylor Tourist Home, a hotel for black travellers in the 1950’s, a time when a room at a national hotel chain was not a guarantee for an African-American. Taylor’s hotel was listed in, The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, a publication that listed hotels where African-Americans could find room and board. Ms. Taylor is the only known African-American woman buried in Section 14.
Minnie Blanca De Ovies
The Countess, wife of the exiled Count Julian De Ovies of Spain, was a palm reader, not a fortune teller, and promoted herself as a “Society Entertainer.” She certainly entertained both private clients and at fundraising events with her brand of science, a pursuit she took very seriously. The Countess made news in 1910 when Pittsburgh Police showed up on her doorstep to arrest her as part of a crackdown on fortune tellers. Countess De Ovies avoided detention, however, either by successfully acquitting herself by explaining the science of palm reading, or through her and her husband’s very powerful connections in Pittsburgh business and society.
Mary Flinn Lawrence
Daughter of Pennsylvania Senator William Flinn. Before his time in the Senate, Mr. Flinn was known in Pittsburgh as, “Boss Flinn,” a moniker sometimes associated with nefarious activities. Mr. Flinn was a progressive thinking parent, however, and believed his two daughters should have the same access and education as his two sons. Ms. Flinn Lawrence graduated from Vassar College in 1911 and became involved with philanthropy and, almost conversely, lobbying. Among her greatest achievements was her work for the women’s suffrage movement in late 1910s. She was instrumental in the founding of the Equal Franchise Federation of Pittsburgh and donated her time, money and, very significantly, a fleet of automobiles to the movement. A tragic car crash in 1959 disabled Ms. Flinn Lawrence who struck a deal with Pittsburgh that she be allowed to live on her property until her death when the land would be given to the city. Ms. Flinn Lawrence received one dollar for the transaction. Upon her death in 1974, the City of Pittsburgh inherited the land and turned it into Hartwood Acres Park.
These are just bits and pieces of four of the fascinating stories Ms. Benford shares during the walking tour of Homewood Cemetery. Space and time limits what can be told here, and the real experience of the tour is Ms. Benford’s incredible narrative and extensive knowledge of all things Homewood Cemetery. This is most assuredly one of many hidden gems in Pittsburgh, and a walk well worth taking.