Bellefontaine cemetery’s first mausoleum in 70 years has secret owners

Visitors to the Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum might be surprised when, after wandering among classical tombstones and statues, they find themselves gazing at a decidedly modern structure across Lake Cascade from the cemetery.

It is the first mausoleum built on the land in over 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 what you really see in the rest of the cemetery.”

Built entirely of granite – at a cost of around $5 million – the mausoleum looks like a giant black and white box perched on an elevation overlooking the lake. Get closer, however, and the monument invites the visitor to sit down for a while, climb its staircase to admire the view or admire its stained glass windows. There is a larger than life lion standing guard.

The lion’s enigmatic expression is appropriate. The mausoleum bears no surname or other obvious identifying information. Smith said the cemetery is committed to secrecy. The same goes for its architect Thomas Wall, who was entrusted with the work by the family after designing a house for them. His company, Mitchell Wallspecializes in custom residential work, so the mausoleum was a first.

“It really is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime project,” Wall said, gazing at the mausoleum from across Lake Cascade. “And it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Build a mausoleum

Having never designed a mausoleum and with carte blanche from his clients, Wall studied the mausoleums of St. Louis and New Orleans and pored over drawings and archival documents. He concluded that the vast majority of them did the work of honoring the dead, but kept the living outside to look within.

An example of a classic mausoleum, with a padlocked door, 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.

Holly Edgell

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NPR Midwest Newsroom

A classic mausoleum, with a padlocked door, belonging to Anheuser-Busch co-founder Adolphus Busch in Bellefontaine Cemetery. Busch died in 1913.

“Every time I looked at one of these buildings or walked through them or looked at their designs, 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 people who came to take a look, would have an experience they would remember, as opposed to another closed building that they couldn’t access. at.”

Access to what has been dubbed the Cascade Mausoleum becomes evident the closer one gets to the structure. Steps invite the visitor to climb onto a large open landing. On the left, benches invite everyone to sit down. Front and center is a wide staircase that invites you to ascend to a second landing. Turn right and there is an area with more seating. Turn left and enjoy the view of Cascade Lake and a wide swath of the cemetery and arboretum.

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St. Louis Public Radio

Thomas Wall, owner and director of Chesterfield-based firm Mitchell-Wall Architecture and Design, is the designer of a complex $5.3 million mausoleum, pictured September 26 in Bellefontaine Cemetery. “Designing for an eternity was a whole new challenge,” he said.

Bringing a new mausoleum to Bellefontaine was both exciting and daunting for Smith. She had just started her work at the cemetery and the arboretum.

“Using the client’s faith as the design basis, we have created a grid system that overlaps the Holy Trinity with the three main elements of man: mind-body-spirit.”

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“I learned that this was the first mausoleum to be built there in 70 years, and that no one on our staff or our board had any experience of how it would go,” Smith said. . “One of the things that worried me was, ‘How is it going to work for this big construction project to take place in a very important area as we look after other families and their funeral needs? “”

Smith said she didn’t need to worry.

“We were extremely lucky because of our relationship between the family, the builders, the architect, everyone involved,” she said. “They really put the needs of our families at the top of the list, so it all went really well.”

Throughout construction, which began in 2019, parties involved in building the mausoleum have pledged to keep the client’s name to themselves, with a few signing nondisclosure agreements.

There are, however, a few clues.

Hint: The site

Wall had to persuade his client to build the mausoleum next to the lake. His client thought the place was too low compared to nearby tombstones and statues.

“He didn’t like the site so much because – as he said – he lived below people once in his life. And he didn’t want to be there anymore,” Wall said.

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Brian Munoz

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St. Louis Public Radio

A $5.3 million mausoleum sits on a lake Sept. 26 at Bellefontaine Cemetery.

The alternate, higher site was adjacent to Kingshighway and its traffic. Wall thought this would undermine the serenity and reflective purpose of the mausoleum, so he came up with a solution, elevating the structure with a four-foot-tall earth berm.

Problem solved.

“I don’t know how you could pick any other place,” Wall said. “The reflection of the mausoleum on the lake, its visual from the site and from different points of view. It really is a wonderful place. I couldn’t have picked a better one.

Hint: The statue

The larger-than-life lion that stands guard at the mausoleum can be a telling symbol of family. Created by sculptor Abraham Mohler from Saint-Louis, the beast gazes majestically at Lake Cascade.

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St. Louis Public Radio

A stone lion stands guard outside a newly built mausoleum in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Wall said his client had something very specific in mind.

“He didn’t want the lion to be fierce or give the impression that it was somehow a dominant feature, but rather calm and collected and wise,” Wall said. “It’s not rumbling. Instead, he displays a sense of wisdom and a sense of, I guess, reluctant control over his surroundings.

Is there more to the lion in terms of family identity? Maybe. “The lion as a symbol permeates many, many cultures, many religions — from Rastafarianism to Judaism,” Wall said. “I mean, you can find depictions of the lion as a symbol of strength or wisdom or just governance in this situation, I think it’s inspired by all of those things.”

Clue: The Crypt

The only part of the mausoleum that is not easily accessible to the public is the crypt, although anyone can peer inside through the three doors that guard this final resting place.

Inside are eight sarcophagi, the granite receptacles where family members will eventually be buried. There is no space to house more than eight burials.

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St. Louis Public Radio

Stained glass window with depictions of a darker line of Jesus Christ on one side of a 5.3 million mausoleum on September 26 in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Light enters the crypt through three stained glass windows, designed by Emil Frei & Associatesthe St. Louis company that has manufactured windows for churches and other institutions across the country.

“The images are designed to look more like Renaissance-style stained glass,” Wall said. “We originally designed a more contemporary style, but that’s where we landed on stained glass. They are representative of three different biblical passages which, according to the client, represented the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. »

The figures depicted in each of the three windows share a distinctive trait: all are people of color. Is this a clue about the family? Wall deflected this question.

“It’s a clue that they realized Jesus wasn’t a white man with blond hair and blue eyes,” he said.

Hint: The sundial

Sometimes a cross is more than a cross. This is the case of that of the Cascade mausoleum, carved from a block of granite weighing 32,000 pounds with very precise specifications.

“The cross is actually carved at a very specific angle of 27.9 degrees. The reason for this is that every year on December 20 at 11:58 a.m. the sun aligns perfectly with the cross and casts an illuminated cross onto the base at the bottom.

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St. Louis Public Radio

A sundial crucifix is ​​part of a $5.3 million mausoleum on Sept. 26 at Bellefontaine Cemetery. The sun will cast a cross over the memorial on the family matriarch’s birthday.

In other words, the cross is a sundial. December 21, of course, is usually the winter solstice. Eve has significance for the family that commissioned the mausoleum.

“It’s the matriarch’s birthday,” Wall said. “As a tribute to her, I had this cross designed in this block so that the sun would shine each year on her birthday directly onto a granite slab below which has a cross.”

Beneath this removable granite slab is a niche, where the family will add important artifacts over time.

“The concept is that they will open this time capsule and be able to review memories of parents who have passed or read passages that were important to people and just remember their legacy,” Wall said.

“Here for the Living”

At this time, no one is buried in the Cascade Mausoleum. Wall said the family plans to reveal their identity when the first loved one is actually buried there.

In the meantime, Smith said the memorial is there for anyone to explore.

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Brian Munoz

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St. Louis Public Radio

Black granite, marble and concrete make up the Mausoleum of the Cascade at the Bellefontaine cemetery.

“As a cemetery, we are here to honor those who have gone before us and to share their stories and their legacy,” she said. “But we’re really also here for the living and the families, and to share the history, the horticulture, the cultures of the past and all those things.”

The ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program, which recognizes excellence in “tree-based” gardens, recently awarded Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum the designation of Tier III Arboretum, the first in Missouri. For Smith, the Cascade Mausoleum fits right in.

“We are 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 confidentiality.

Follow Holly on Twitter at @Holly Edgell.

Luz W. German