How a Forgotten Ravine Was Turned Into a Memorial Park's Showpiece

Date Published: 
July, 2004
Original Author: 
Susan Loving
Managing Editor, ICCFA Magazine, Sterling, Virginia
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, July 2004

Cemeteries add mausoleums for a variety of reasons, but when they face running out of room for interments, making more efficient use of their remaining land tends to top the list. Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary added 20 years' of interment space with its Garden of the Matriarchs project, but it involved doing a lot of planning, making many appearances before city officials and dealing with neighbors who didn't want their view of the cemetery ruined!

As the end of the 20th century neared, Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary appeared to be approaching the end of its active life. COO Barry Berlin calculated the Culver City, California, property had five to seven and a half years of interment or entombment space left, much of it not prime property. And families coming to Hillside were accustomed to being able to choose the best. The memorial park's list of "distinguished residents" includes people who made their mark in Hollywood, business, education and athletics.

"When you get down near the end of the cemetery's life," said Berlin, "a lot of what you have left is odds and ends. Family estates or single spaces become scarce or unavailable."

There was a ravine behind the maintenance area that was overgrown and forgotten. Forty years ago, Hillside's owners were told the metropolitan water district had an easement on it that made it unusable for interments. But the only other contiguous parcel of land the memorial park owned, a former supermarket site, was tied up in a long-term lease. The cemetery would run out of space before the land was available, much less made usable, and no other contiguous land was available for sale.

So, Berlin took another look at the 2.25- acre ravine area, hidden and separated from the rest of the park by the maintenance building and a garden crypt complex as well as its topography. He found that yes, there was a drainage easement on the land, but it was held by Culver City, not the Los Angeles County Department of Water and Power, and was not as extensive as had been believed. "All of a sudden," Berlin said, "we found ourselves two and a quarter acres of usable land."

In 1999, the first plans were drawn up for the project, which was completed in 2004. Berlin talked to ICFM about coming up with a plan that would make the neighbors and city happy while making the most out of Hillside's "found" land.

What did you have to do to satisfy the city?
Culver City said we could build on the land if our civil engineers could design a drain system to allow drainage through the park to continue. We had to resection the drains in the park so the water would flow under the park. Under the mausoleum, there is a spillway containing 1,500 cubic yards of solid concrete. In the unlikely event the drains overflow, the water will simply go under the building and out.

The whole approval process took three and a half years. We had to go through the Planning Department, which asked for numerous changes, and then of course we had some contentious public hearings—the neighbors were concerned that the new building would block their beautiful view of Hillside's park-like setting—and the whole thing had to go before the Culver City Council.

The neighbors didn't want their view of the cemetery blocked??
Remember, we've been here since 1941, before any of the residences nearby were built. Their view, when they moved in, was of a park, since this is a memorial park without upright monuments. So they were afraid the building would be ugly, or would block their view.

Obviously in the end Culver City approved the project.
The City Council voted unanimously to allow us to build, but with 52 conditions. We had to do a lot of things that really had nothing to do with the project, but the city saw us as a vehicle for getting all kinds of things done.

We had to build bus shelters and benches. We had to beautify the entire exterior of the park, change some of the bushes and trees along Green Valley Circle, Doverwood Drive and Centinela Avenue, which is on the opposite end of the memorial park from where the mausoleum was being built. They had us completely change the irrigation system, build retaining walls, make handicapped-accessible sidewalks, smooth out slopes and put in curbing. Fifty-two conditions of approval, let me tell you, is a lot of conditions! But all the work enhanced the area.

Did you have a number in mind for how many interment spaces you wanted to get out of this property?
We told the architects, Mekus Studios, we wanted to maximize every single inch of space, but we knew that we needed to include ground space as well as wall crypts. In the Jewish religion, most people still prefer ground burial, particularly in the case of Orthodox Jews. While we are owned by a Reform temple, we serve Orthodox, Conservative and Reform families as well as unaffiliated members of the community.

We also had to work with the topography. This was a very difficult engineering project, because the land was a disaster, in terms of its topography. It had deep valleys, high hills and wild trees. We couldn't just go in there with a bulldozer and level it out—the city would have had a hemorrhage, to say the least. And we had to design the building to be as unobtrusive as possible as far as the neighbors were concerned.

We tore down the maintenance building on the edge of the "found" land after we built a new one elsewhere, in a wooded area, but we needed to coordinate the new mausoleum with the existing garden crypt complex, Sunland Gardens.
Our original plan was to have a building of one height, within the city's height
restriction, but that turned out to be too massive. It was back to the drawing board, and what emerged was a three-tiered mausoleum with gardens atop the first two levels and a skylight on the third level, as well as lawn crypts divided into three gardens.

The gardens are beautiful and the neighbors love it. They've called us, they've come over to walk through the gardens and tell us that they are very, very pleased. The ones who were our antagonists at one time have admitted that it's beautiful and very different from what they had envisioned.

We started construction in 2002 and Court of the Matriarchs mausoleum and Garden of the Matriarchs lawn crypts were dedicated in January of this year.


How much space did you end up with?
We added 5,356 crypts, including 2,687 double-depth crypts. In the mausoleum, we have 2,854 casket spaces. We have five family rooms with a capacity of 12 to 18 caskets. All five have been sold, were sold while the building was still under construction. We couldn't include more because that would have decreased total capacity too much.

We estimate this project gives us an additional 15 to 20 years of interment or entombment space. It also gives us a nice array of different types of inventory so no matter what a family is looking for; we have something to show them.

When did you start selling?
We started preconstruction sales in 2002, using artist's renderings, and we've done very well. The early sales helped pay for the project.

What sort of marketing have you done?
A massive amount. We've contacted all the temples and other Jewish organizations. We've worked out arrangements so that if they, or a congregant, purchase property, we will make a donation to the synagogue. We've sent direct mail to the client lists our sales counselors have. We've advertised extensively in the Jewish weekly newspaper in Los Angeles, both with regular ads and inserts.

We've done everything we could to get the word out to the Jewish population of Los Angeles, which is extensive, that we have something new and unique, and it seems to have worked.

What will you do with the land now under lease when it becomes available?
Our master plan shows us tearing down the administration building and mortuary, replacing them with new buildings on that property, which is at the intersection of Green Valley Circle and Centinela Avenue, which is where we'll move the main entrance.
We'll keep the chapel now located by the current mortuary, and include a chapel with the new mortuary. That will give us the ability to handle two services at the same time.

The administration building and mortuary take up about 9,000 square feet, so moving them will free up some land, which we'll use for mausoleum space. Since we'll have a new main entrance, we can close some of the current roadway and develop it, as well.

I won't be here to do all this, but in the cemetery business you have to think long term.