Nathan Marsak on Los Angeles Cemetery Architecture at the LAVA Sunday Salon, April 2014

On the last Sunday of each month, LAVA welcomes interested individuals to gather in downtown Los Angeles, for a structured Salon featuring formal presentations and opportunities to meet and connect with one another. If you’re interested in joining LAVA as a creative contributor or an attendee, we recommend Salon attendance as an introduction to this growing community. 

At the April 2014 LAVA Sunday Salon, architectural historian Nathan Marsak, author of Los Angeles Neon, presented on Los Angeles’s great public mausolea. In this cultural and architectural history of how Los Angeles came to understand the community mausoleum, Marsak charts the southland’s parallels with and digressions from America’s developing mores and attitudes toward the space of death.

Emerging from the early 20th-century Garden Cemetery movement, Los Angeles not only contributed the concept of the memorial park, but also many of the finest–and sometimes strangest–grand public mausolea known. Los Angeles, long noted for its mimetic “California Crazy” and futuristic Googie architecture, needed, in its funerary architecture, to strive for solemnity and sublimity.  Nevertheless, its cemetery buildings betray a peculiar and genuinely Southern Californian ethos in their expression.

Discussed are the 1903 Chapel of the Pines crematory and columbarium; the early community mausolea of the ‘teens; the interbellum wonders of Forest Lawn’s neogothic Great Mausoleum, Angeles Abbey’s Arabian wonderland, and early-Christian meets Art Deco at Calvary Cemetery. Particular study is given to the postwar era and the specific challenges mausoleum design faced adapting to Modernism–it is during this period they are routinely disparaged as filing cabinet necro-tenements–and how new considerations of population and land management influenced the building of open garden-court mausolea and columbaria.

Their legacy has left us with a means to gauge the city’s development (as well as remarkable tile work and stained glass).  Through this lens, Marsak reveals this significant, yet little-valued aspect of our architectural landscape.