The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

Tomb with a View

Tomb with a View

Frederick Law Olmsted’s eternal vision for Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery.

Grave sightseeing: Mountain View Cemetery’s famous patrons include: Anthony Chabot, father of hydraulic mining who brought water to Oakland, San Jose and Vallejo

Architect Julia Morgan (1872-1957) was laid to rest here, on a south-facing slope among three generations of Morgans. Architect Bernard R. Maybeck (1862-1957) lies at the far end of the sunken urn garden near a small waterfall. Francis Marion “Borax” Smith, a businessman who built the Claremont Hotel and established the Key Route commuter train, ferry and streetcar system, resides in a stately granite mausoleum overlooking the Bay in what has come to be called “Millionaire’s Row.”

And although his name is not found carved in granite among the sea of monuments and markers, architectural giant Frederick Law Olmsted seems to haunt this historic and sprawling hillside resting place. Mountain View Cemetery was built 142 years ago at the tip of Piedmont Avenue and the base of the Oakland hills bounded by Moraga and Clarewood Avenues. Olmsted’s spare hand designed the Mountain View plan in defiance of late-19th-century trends.

One of America’s first landscape architects, Olmsted is less known for laying the groundwork for Oakland’s “city of the dead” than for designing New York City’s Central Park or Boston’s Emerald Necklace. He is mistakenly, at times, credited with designing the U.C. Berkeley campus—though he did advise Berkeley campus designer William Hammond Hall via correspondence. It is a little known fact that his hand drew the linear central axis and serpentine offshoots that trace the natural topography of Mountain View.

Henry Durant, founding president of the University of California

As Mountain View Cemetery Association Trustees are poised to construct new buildings and to develop a master plan for the next hundred years, neighbors are invoking Olmsted’s ghost in their claims that new additions will trample on the acclaimed landscape architect’s original design.

The Piedmont Avenue Neighborhood Improvement League (PANIL) slapped Mountain View with a lawsuit in 2003 forcing the cemetery to withdraw its proposal by Alexander Gorlin Architects of New York to build a new mausoleum. The community group won when it came to light that Mountain View had failed to perform a full Environmental Impact Report for the proposed 19,656-square-foot structure. Now it is back to the drawing board to devise a master plan that neighbors, and Olmsted’s spirit, can endure.

It’s true that Olmsted desired few structures. Instead, he called for a landscape of suitable evergreen trees and formal hedges that would create a fitting backdrop for community memorial. Using a rare combination of formal tree-lined drive, roundabouts and organic winding lanes, he tailored a masterful solution to the particulars of terrain and climate.

James A. Folger, early king of coffee

Remnants of Olmsted’s vision are still visible today in the layout of the roads, the location of the chapel and a handful of groupings of large evergreen trees. But only part of his plan came to fruition. The central allée of cypress and peripheral hedges designed to shelter and define burials are absent. Instead, flowering magnolias and non-native palm trees flourish. Monuments and markers are in plain sight up and down the exposed hillside. Inviting to joggers and strollers, the atmosphere is casual, if not parklike.


In 1864, Oakland’s cemetery, near tidal wetlands, was overcrowded and prone to flooding. Town leaders wanted to address the growing public health hazard by opening a new cemetery outside the city limits. They hired Olmsted, who was working in Bear Valley managing a gold mining operation, to come out to the outskirts of Oakland to look at some property.

Domingo Ghirardelli, early king of chocolate

In his mind’s eye Olmsted transformed the virtually treeless and windswept 200-acre cow pasture into a landscape for contemplation and memorial. He was less concerned with beautifying the grounds than furthering what he saw as the main objective of building a new cemetery. In a letter to the cemetery trustees that accompanied his plan Olmsted wrote: “Your central purpose then is to prepare a place in which these feelings, sentiments and aspirations which religion and civilization make common to all in the presence of the dead, may be expressed and excited independently of the promptings of individual affliction and individual memories.”

It was his job, he believed, to clear the way to enable and encourage the “community of the living” to pay respect to the “community of the dead.” Taken together, his words and his plan show a consideration for how the formal aspects of landscape design may reflect and support a higher social function.

In his personal life, Olmsted had many occasions to reflect on death. He had lost his mother at age three and, more recent to his design of the cemetery, a brother, his closest friend. Subsequently he married his brother’s wife, becoming a father to his brother’s three children and fathering four more.

Rev. Samuel Merritt, physician, businessman and mayor of Oakland in 1867

Although Olmsted had never designed a cemetery prior to Mountain View, he was familiar with memorial parks from his travels back east and in Europe. Picturesque rural cemeteries, like Mount Auburn near Cambridge, Mass., with curvy lanes and naturalistic clusters of shrubs and trees, served as pleasure grounds for the living. According to biographer Witold Rybczynski, Olmsted designed an unprecedented formal/organic hybrid contrary to contemporary fashion.

Olmsted urged the trustees to guarantee from the outset that improvements, individual taste and even expressions of personal grief would take a backseat to the more solemn collective purpose of “waiting on the dead,” a notion that is barely comprehensible from our contemporary vantage point.

Not only did he carefully plan for the future by seeking to safeguard against dilapidation, such as crumbling buildings and walkways, stunted trees and withered shrubs, he warned against detracting from what he believed to be the higher function of cemeteries in civilized society.

The few indispensable buildings shown in the original master plan include Protestant and Jewish places of worship (Catholicism was represented in the adjacent cemetery), offices and caretakers’ lodges, and receiving tombs. For the most part, these buildings were along the straight roads and at lower elevations. He also showed a fountain along the central axis. According to Joe Runco of SWA Group in Sausalito, Olmsted’s plan covers less than 75 percent of Mountain View’s property. The remainder will be developed under the future master plan.

Bernard Maybeck, first U.C. Berkeley professor of architecture, mentor of Julia Morgan and designer of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco
Photos by SpiralA Design.

When Olmsted visited, the exposed site had forceful winds, a limited palette of native plants and a long dry season that would require irrigation for most plants to survive. (It wasn’t until the 1880s to the early 1900s that Anthony Chabot made water available in Oakland for irrigation.) Olmsted reasoned that a parklike, naturalistic setting would be impractical and costly to maintain. Therefore he recommended a handful of Mediterranean plant species and one indigenous tree—the evergreen oak—to create a more formal, low-water, low-maintenance landscape. He was more than a century ahead of his time in thinking about drought-resistant and native plants.

“The brooding forms of the coppices and the canopy of the cedars would unite in the expression of a sheltering care extended over the place of the dead, the heaven-pointing spires of the immortal cypress would prompt the consolations of faith,” was what Olmsted projected.

The basic plan was simple: plant a walkway of towering evergreen Italian cypress along the central avenues, with more horizontal spreading Lebanese cedar, Italian stone pine or oak punctuating the landscape at intervals. Runco, Mountain View’s current landscape architect, says cypresses would have been placed at the entrance to the family plots as well. A variety of plantings by individual families was to define the borders of the hexagonal or honeycombed plots to complete the plan over time.

Olmsted specified few plant species as options, and ultimately left the specific selection up to the cemetery trustees based on what was consistent with the simplicity and overall vertical/horizontal balance inherent in the scheme and what would thrive under local conditions.

The effect would have been more formal and ordered than the scattered flowering trees, palms and wide-open vistas we see today, according to Runco, who would eventually like to see the central axis lined with tall, narrow cypress spaced 10 feet apart as Olmsted designed it. Evergreen hedges bordering the curving roads would have formed living walls.

According to Jeff Lindeman, Mountain View general manager and chief financial officer, the cemetery now hopes to create the effect of outdoor rooms within the family plots. Instead of enclosing space with hedges, the trustees are considering building granite walls around semiprivate family gardens or estates.

In another proposed change, Mountain View is reverting back to a more Victorian sensibility. Docent Dennis Evanosky hopes that for the first time since 1918, policy will once again permit upright monuments in the new hillside plots and select older portions of the cemetery. Less conspicuous, flat headstones became standard in the 20th century.

Flat markers allowed ease of maintenance. More invisible, they also created a picturesque, parklike atmosphere when, in spite of Olmsted’s admonishments, the memorial park cemetery style was in vogue in California in the 1930s to 1940s, says Lindeman.

Planted 60 or 70 years ago, the magnolias require irrigation, but their flowering canopies have been around long enough to claim historic preservation. When it comes to protecting the landscape, it’s not what was planned but what was planted that matters, according to Lindeman.

Even so, to accentuate the sense of arrival, Mountain View recently encircled the entrance with an evergreen hedge. It was an homage to Olmsted that the deer quickly ate, but the cemetery plans to replant, Runco says.

Olmsted—who drew up plans for Mountain View after returning to his home in New York, perhaps never seeing his finished work—understood that the art of landscape architecture is a long-term process. In a letter to his son Frederick Jr., he wrote: “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than 40 years.” Mountain View was no different.

“The landscape changes,” says Runco. “Plants have a lifespan.” It would take 100 years to transition to the formal, ordered landscape Olmsted envisioned, he explains.

When it comes to managing an eternal city, a century does not seem such a long way off. l

Lauri Puchall writes about architecture for The Monthly.

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