A work of art to die for

Date Published: 
July, 2005
Original Author: 
Susan Loving
Managing Editor, ICCFA Magazine, Sterling, VA
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, July 2005

The word "unique" is often misused to describe the unusual but not truly one of a kind. Forest Lawn Cemetery's Blue-Sky Mausoleum is unique. It is the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed memorial the public can buy.

In the lexicon of cemeteries, Blue-Sky is a garden mausoleum—an outdoor mausoleum—but no one seeing what appears to be a wide, double granite staircase leading up a hillside to a memorial would recognize it as such.

A sales booklet for Blue-Sky says Frank Lloyd Wright's design "broke the box of memorial architecture tradition." In fact, he did away with the box-there is no box, no walls, no roof.

If you didn't know what it was, you would assume Blue-Sky to be a fabulous memorial to an incredibly wealthy individual. But Blue-Sky, though originally designed for Darwin Martin, Wright's wealthy patron (before the 1929 stock market crash) who wanted to gather his family together for all time, was finally built by the cemetery, not by a family. Its 24 crypt spaces are being marketed as a community mausoleum or even a cenotaph.

People who do not plan to be interred there but would like their name connected with Wright's memorial for all time may purchase a crypt simply in order to have their name or family name carved on the crypt front, said Fred R. Whaley Jr., recently retired Forest Lawn president.
Cemeteries as outdoor museums
Historic rural cemeteries are no strangers to works by renowned sculptors and architects, and often remind the community that they are outdoor museums as well as the nation's first parks. During Forest Lawn's celebration of its 150th anniversary in 1999, the cemetery hosted an exhibit, "Sculpture of the Spirit," featuring works from contemporary artists, for several months (see the September 1999 ICFM).

Blue-Sky Mausoleum, however, is a permanent addition to the cemetery's landscape, and it was designed by the one architect most Americans could name. The mausoleum project is also part of a larger effort by Buffalo to use its wealth of Wright-designed buildings to draw tourists.

Forest Lawn commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation architect Anthony Puttnam, who had apprenticed with Wright and who has developed other Wright designs, to oversee the construction of Blue-Sky.

Buffalo has the largest collection of Wright structures in the Northeast. The Darwin Martin home complex, also designed by Wright, has undergone a $25 million restoration, and designs for The Transportation Museum's Filling Station and the Rowing Boathouse are scheduled to be turned into buildings this year.

"Oak Park, Illinois, may be the only other community in the world that has as many Wright-designed sites," Whaley said. Wright afficionados will come to Buffalo "from all over the world," Whaley predicted. Blue-Sky, he said, is "unlike any other Wright project either here or elsewhere, and that in itself will be a draw."

A unique market
Who will choose not just to look—which anyone can do for free—but to buy at prices no doubt more typical for art than mausoleums, particularly community mausoleums?

"We have only to look at auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's to understand the desire people have for pieces of architecture," Whaley said. "A collector will be very interested in the Blue-Sky—perhaps not for burial and memorialization, but more because it is something of Frank Lloyd Wright's." (Those interested in buying are directed to request a Purchase Information Package via info@blueskymausoleum.com or 716.885.1600.)

Wright's other designs for cemetery structures include the Pettit Memorial Chapel at Belvidere Cemetery, Belvidere, Illinois, which includes a chapel and memorial but not burial chambers.

Also, he designed the Unity Temple in Wisconsin's Taliesin Valley as a memorial and burial structure for himself, his wife and daughter and members of the Taliesin Fellowship. However, when Wright died in 1959, work had begun on the foundation, but the project was never completed.

Now that Blue-Sky has been realized, the plans have been retired; there will not be another one. It is, and will forever be unique.