Woodlawn Cemetery, 400 rolling acres in the Bronx, New York, is the setting of an often overlooked footnote in Sir Edwin Lutyens’s work: his only other design, besides the Embassy in Washington, to be built in North America.
The expensive architect was commissioned in 1927 by the English-born actress, Beatrice Mary Beckley, to design a monument to her husband, James Keteltas Hackett (1869-1926). Once a famous stage actor, he died a day before he was to have performed a scene from “Macbeth” for King George V. Tall, handsome, a Barrymore-type figure, he only reluctantly appeared in the film The Prisoner of Zenda for Zukor’s Famous Players Company. Well-to-do, having inherited a large estate from his half-brother’s only child, he left a $1 million bequest to the Actors’ Home in Staten Island, New York.
Lutyens’s undertaking was announced in The New York Times (8 July 1927):
The design of a memorial stele for the plot in Woodlawn Cemetery where the ashes of the late James K. Hackett, American actor, will have their final resting place, is being prepared by Sir Edwin Lutyens, R.A., who was recently in America to inspect the site of the proposed new British Embassy at Washington, plans for which he is to draft.
The Woodlawn Cemetery’s archives, which includes Lutyens’s hand-colored drawing and correspondence, have been transferred to the Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library of Columbia University and are being cataloged and digitized.
While echoing the Cenotaph (1920) in Whitehall, London, the Lutyens monument to Hackett is modest: simple plinths supporting a three-foot stele. The severity is lightened by a beautiful carved, surrounding draped garland. This detail recalls the swags of fruit, flowers and leaves found on a large number of Roman sarcophagi. On the Hackett monument, as with the ancient sculpture, this is an evocation of actual mourning wreaths used to adorn tombs. While not exactly festive, the garland does provide a more appropriate element for the memorial to a hard-living thespian who collapsed in Paris of cirrhosis of the liver than it is for those who were killed in battle for their country. Lutyens’s prodigious work to commemorate those who died during the First World War, which included advising the Imperial War Graves Commission, contributed significantly to the architect’s international stature.
The original landscaping, to complement and complete the Hackett memorial, is now mostly gone. It was designed and planted by Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869-1950), a contemporary of Beatrix Farrand, who, as it happened, created the garden for the Harkness family grave in Woodlawn at the same time. The Gothic mausoleum was designed by James Gamble Rogers with the metal work, including the entrance gate and bronze door, created by Samuel Yellin, who also worked at Dumbarton Oaks.
The memorial is illustrated in David Dunlap. “The life of a cemetery,” The New York Times, 16 July 2006, p. A27 and Laura Shaine Cunningham. “Romancing the stones,” The New York Times 27 May 2007.
“James K. Hackett’s ashes to be brought to New York,” Boston Daily Globe, 9 November 1926, p. 13.
Hopkins, Andrew and Gavin Stamp, editors, in Lutyens abroad (2002) list two other American proposals by Lutyens but not realized: Arden House in Orange County, New York for Edward H. Harriman, 1903 and a room for Sir Joseph Duveen in New York, 1927.