For over 150 years, The Woodlawn Cemetery has been known for its collection of trees. Our lot owners selected final resting places where trees would shade their loved ones. Several families created “memorial gardens,” beautifully landscaped spaces designed to comfort visitors and showcase memorials. Today, with so many New Yorkers and tourists using Woodlawn as a green sanctuary, a place to take a quiet walk, the care and maintenance of our landscape is of great importance.
In 2016, a tree survey was conducted to identify the number of trees on our grounds (6,300), the variety of species (142) and the age and condition of the specimens. As a significant “Urban Forest,” with a wide variety of trees, Woodlawn qualified for Level 2 Status as an Arboretum. Maps, guides and an App are available for those who want to walk on their own to check out the labeled trees.
How did a cemetery located in a metropolitan area become a “forest?” Reports from the early articles published about the newly established 400-acre burial ground state that a quarter of the farmland purchased was filled with trees. There are several large specimens, like the grand oak on North Border Plot that are older than the cemetery.
The records documenting Woodlawn’s early days provide details of the Trustees traveling to Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, where they learned of the work and design style promoted by a German architect, Adolph Strauch. Management and staff embraced the “Landscape Lawn Plan,” and immediately went to work installing garden areas filled with ornamental trees and large canopy species to provide shade and enhance the appearance of the grounds. Early reports to Lot Owners identified the types of trees being planted at Woodlawn. Financial records show the orders for hundreds of Dogwoods, Beeches, Magnolias and Japanese Maples, many becoming signature plantings over the years.
In the early decades of the 20th century, several lot owners hired well known landscape designers to create one last garden. Beatrix Jones Farrand, Charles Wellford Leavitt, Ellen Biddle Shipman, Ferrucio Vitale, Charles Downing Lay and Annette Hoyt Flanders are among those whose blueprints are included with the Woodlawn records donated to the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University. Marion Cruger Coffin recommended a screen of evergreens for the lot of her friend, architect George B. Post. All the works designed by architects Trowbridge and Livingston feature gardens by Vitale and Gieffert. Among the most significant landscapes is the Constable Lot, designed by the Olmsted Brothers firm.
Many notable figures who designed landscapes, planted parks and created public green spaces are memorialized at Woodlawn. Robert Moses, who served as Parks Commissioner rests along with Ignatz Pilat who planted much of Central Park, and Samuel Parsons, Jr. who served for thirty years as the Landscape Architect for New York City. One of more colorful Commissioners at Woodlawn is Charles Burnstein Stover who resigned after a brief “disappearance.” A bronze portrait paid for by his friends is on his grave.
When the New York City Parks Department decided to list “the Great Trees of New York,” a handful of Woodlawn’s trees made this list. In recent years, photographer Benjamin Swett photographed these trees which are featured in a beautiful book. Among the most incredible images is the portrait of the Weeping Beech tree on the Jay Gould Lot which dwarfs the temple style mausoleum.
Spring is a perfect season for celebrating the beauty and importance of trees in our lives and there is no better place than the Woodlawn Arboretum to learn about them. Upcoming programs detail the process of the tree survey and how the collection was counted, the method for identifying the age of plants and ways that young people can discover how to enjoy and preserve the valuable green space in our city.
Visit our Arboretum page, view our tree guide map and take our self-guided tree tour. Also, please plan to come for an in-person visit. The Woodlawn Cemetery is open from 8:30 to 4:30 daily.