Bellefontaine Cemetery’s first mausoleum in 70 years has secret owners
Visitors to Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum in St. Louis might be startled when, after meandering amid classic headstones and statuary, they find themselves gazing at a decidedly modern structure from across the cemetery’s Cascade Lake.
It’s the first mausoleum built on the grounds in more than 70 years.
“It's a very unique structure on our property,” said Sherry Smith, president and CEO of Bellefontaine. “The structure is more contemporary than really you see in the rest of the cemetery.”
Built entirely of granite — at a cost of about $5 million — the mausoleum looks like a giant black-and-white box perched on a rise overlooking the lake. Move in closer, however, and the monument beckons the visitor to sit a spell, climb its staircase for the view or admire its stained-glass windows. There’s a larger-than-life lion standing guard.
The lion’s enigmatic expression is appropriate. The mausoleum bears no family names or other obvious identifying information. Smith said the cemetery is committed to keeping the secret. So is architect Thomas Wall, whom the family commissioned for the job after he’d designed a home for them. His firm, Mitchell Wall, specializes in custom residential work, so the mausoleum was a first.
“It's truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of project,” Wall said, gazing at the mausoleum from across Cascade Lake. “And it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Making a mausoleum
Having never designed a mausoleum, and with carte blanche from his clients, Wall studied mausoleums in St. Louis and New Orleans and poured over archival drawings and records. He concluded that the vast majority of them did the job of honoring the dead but kept the living on the outside looking in.
One example of the classic mausoleum, complete with padlocked gate, is the structure built at Bellefontaine for Adolphus Busch, the co-founder of Anheuser-Busch, who died in 1913. The new mausoleum is at least twice the size of the Busch structure.
“Anytime I looked at one of these buildings or, or walked through it or looked at the drawings of them, it didn't really seem to take into account the experience of the living,” Wall said. “So I wanted to do something different with this mausoleum. I wanted to design a space where people who came to pay their respects, or even just the people who came to take a look, would have an experience that they would remember as opposed to just another gated-up building that they couldn't get access to.”
Access to what has been dubbed the Cascade Mausoleum becomes apparent the closer one gets to the structure. Steps beckon the visitor up to a wide, open landing. To the left are benches that invite anyone to take a seat. Front and center is a wide staircase that invites visitors up to a second landing. Turn right and there’s a space with more seating. Turn left and enjoy the view across Cascade Lake and a wide swath of the cemetery and arboretum.
Bringing a new mausoleum to Bellefontaine was both exciting and daunting for Smith. She had just started her job at the cemetery and arboretum.
“Using the client’s faith as the basis for design, we created a grid system that overlaps the Holy Trinity with the three primary elements of man: mind-body-spirit.”MitchellWall.com
“I learned that this was the first mausoleum to be built there in 70 years, and that nobody on our staff or our board had any experience with how this would flow,” Smith said. “One of the things that concerned me was, ‘How is it going to work to have this large construction project going on in a very prominent area when we're caring for other families and their funeral needs?’”
Smith said she need not have worried.
“We were extremely fortunate because of our relationship between the family, the builders, the architect, everybody involved,” she said. “They really put our families’ needs at the top of their list, and so it really went very smoothly.”
Throughout construction, which began in 2019, the parties involved with building the mausoleum vowed to keep the client’s name to themselves, a few signing nondisclosure agreements.
There are, however, a few clues.
Clue: The site
Wall had to persuade his client to build the mausoleum next to the lake. His client thought the spot was too low compared to the nearby headstones and statues.
“He wasn't so keen on the site because — as he said — he lived downhill from people once during his life. And he didn't want to be there again,” Wall said.
The alternate site, higher up, was adjacent to Kingshighway and its traffic. Wall thought that would undermine the serenity and reflective purpose of the mausoleum, so he proposed a solution, elevating the structure with a four-foot-high earth berm.
“I don't know how you could pick any other spot,” Wall said. “The reflection of the mausoleum off of the lake, the visual of it from the site and from any different vantage points — it's really a wonderful location. I couldn't have handpicked a better one.”
Clue: The statue
The larger-than-life lion on guard at the mausoleum may be a telling symbol of the family. Created by sculptor Abraham Mohler of St. Louis, the beast looks regally across Cascade Lake.
Wall said his client had something very specific in mind.
“He did not want the lion to be ferocious or give the impression that it was somehow a dominant feature, but rather calm and collected and wise,” Wall said. “It isn't snarling. Instead it’s displaying a sense of wisdom and a sense of, I suppose, reluctant control over its surroundings.”
Is there more to be gleaned from the lion in terms of the family’s identity? Perhaps. “The lion as a symbol permeates many, many cultures, many religions — everything from Rastafarianism to Judaism,” Wall said. “I mean, you can find representations of the lion as a symbol of strength or wisdom or of just governance in this situation, I think it draws from all of those things.”
Clue: The crypt
The only part of the mausoleum that is not readily accessible to the public is the crypt, although anyone can look inside through the three gates that guard this final resting place.
Within it are eight sarcophagi, the granite receptacles where family members will eventually be interred. There is no space to house more than eight burials.
Light shines into the crypt through three stained-glass windows, designed by Emil Frei & Associates, a St. Louis company that has crafted windows for churches and other institutions around the country.
“The images are designed to look more like Renaissance-style stained glass,” Wall said. “We'd initially designed a more contemporary style, but this is where we landed on the stained glass. They're representative of three different Bible passages that the client felt represented the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
The figures depicted in each of the three windows share a distinctive feature: All are people of color. Is this a clue about the family? Wall deflected this question.
“It's a clue that they realized that Jesus wasn't a white guy with blonde hair and blue eyes,” he said.
Clue: The sundial
Sometimes a cross is more than a cross. That is the case with the one at the Cascade Mausoleum, carved into a 32,000-pound block of granite with precise specifications.
“The cross is actually carved in at a very specific angle of 27.9 degrees. The reason is because every year, on Dec. 20 at 11:58 a.m., the sun aligns perfectly with the cross, and it projects an illuminated cross onto the plinth at the bottom.”
In other words, the cross is a sundial. Dec. 21, of course, is usually when the winter solstice occurs. The day before holds significance for the family who commissioned the mausoleum.
“It's the matriarch's birthday,” Wall said. “As an homage to her, I had this cross designed into this block so that the sun would project every year on her birthday directly onto a slab granite below that has a cross.”
Beneath that removable slab of granite lies a niche, where the family will add important artifacts over time.
“The concept is that they will open up this time capsule and be able to review mementos of relatives who have passed or read passages that were important to people and just remember their heritage,” Wall said.
'Here for the living'
For now, there is no one interred in the Cascade Mausoleum. Wall said the family plans to reveal its identity when the first loved one is actually buried there.
In the meantime, Smith said, the memorial is there for anyone to explore.
“As a cemetery, we are there to honor those who have passed before us and to share their stories and their legacies,” she said. “But we're really also here for the living and the families, and to share history, horticulture, past cultures and all of those things.”
The ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation program, which recognizes excellence in “tree-focused” gardens, recently awarded Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum the designation of Level III arboretum, the first in Missouri. For Smith, the Cascade Mausoleum fits right in.
“We’re alive and vibrant,” she said.
Editor's note: We have withheld the name of the family who commissioned the Cascade Mausoleum in accordance with their request for privacy.
Follow Holly on Twitter at @HollyEdgell.