Every cemetery in Detroit: Woodlawn Cemetery


Deer at Woodlawn cemetery. The mausoleum on the left is J.L. Hudson’s. 

This post is part of my ongoing project to visit every cemetery in Detroit. At the pace I’ve been working I will finish this project in approximately 40 years.

Woodlawn is more than a cemetery to me. It is, simply, one of the places I love best. Like all of the cemeteries I write about, it is a repository of the city’s history, art, and architecture. But it’s also a place of personal rest and respite for me — especially in the winter, when a walk there is my go-to remedy for cabin fever. A family of deer live there; a glimpse of the herd bounding through the snow is an instant cure for a bad winter mood. This winter I’ve been bringing my binoculars to watch a pair of red-tailed hawks, hunched high in the oaks. I’ve seen possums lurching around the lawns and, once and unforgettably, a fox on the steps of a mausoleum.

Woodlawn’s relative wildness, even in the thrum of the city, is a reminder of when the land was a part of a forest in sparsely-settled Greenfield Township, 10 miles north of downtown. In 1895, the Woodlawn Cemetery Association decided “that will DEFINITELY be a far-away-enough spot!” and purchased the 140-acre parcel from landowners Robert Thuner and F.T. Ranney for $140,000 (about $4M today).

By 1900, you could take an electric streetcar up Woodward without interruption from downtown to the cemetery gates. Soon the demand for somberly-decorated funeral cars to take mourners and their deceased beloveds to far-flung cemeteries had stretched the Detroit United Railway’s capacity. Wrote DUR general superintendent A.B. Stanley in 1902: “We have operated for some years a single truck funeral car, but the demands for interment at outlying cemeteries and points on the interurban lines is so great that we have found it necessary to build a double-truck funeral car, which is now in process of construction at our shops. It is similar to an interurban passenger car with a front compartment having doors on each side, which drop down and permit the casket being rolled in from the side. The front end is draped in black and the car is draped in black with silver trimmings; the inside is furnished with dark plush.” The funeral cars could be chartered for your service and accommodated up to 38 people.

To design the cemetery, the association hired landscape architect and horticulturalist Frank Eurich — who, fun fact, has another Woodlawn Cemetery to his credit in Toledo. (Toledo’s Woodlawn, founded in 1876, came first.) In Toledo, Eurich planted a variety of trees so diverse that the cemetery is now an accredited arboretum. Though I couldn’t tell you exactly what kinds of trees Eurich planted at our Woodlawn, I know there are a bunch of interesting conifers, big oaks and sycamores, and one particular sweet-gum tree that I visit in every season.

woodlawn sweetgum

That’s my sweetgum at the center of the landscaping island. I took a photo of the same tree for this blog post in 2010

Woodward Lawn Cemetery — it does not commonly appear in obituaries as “Woodlawn” until after 1900 — was dedicated in an impressive public ceremony in 1898. Over 1,000 people trekked out to the cemetery via specially commissioned electric streetcars. (“The lively traffic, due to the attractions out Woodward avenue, caused considerable delay, and considerable time was lost at a point where the city electric power ends and the Pontiac current begins,” reported the Free Press. “The cars moved slowly until the two currents were united.”)

No one had been buried at Woodlawn at this point, but the cemetery already boasted a big attraction: the Hecker Mausoleum, commissioned by railroad car baron Colonel Frank Hecker and designed by world-renowned American architect Stanford White. White designed the mausoleum in a Greek revival style and built it from bright white Vermont marble. It cost $40,000 in 1897 — $1.2M today — and it’s almost as showy and regal as Col. Hecker’s turreted mansion at the corner of Woodward and Ferry Street.


The Hecker Mausoleum at Woodlawn.

A long promenade, dubbed Frontenac Avenue, leads straight from Woodlawn’s gates to the Hecker Mausoleum, still the cemetery’s architectural centerpiece. In 1898, one of the cemetery’s founding board members, Sullivan M. Cutcheon, stood on a stage next to Hecker’s mausoleum and gave a speech about whether there might be life after death — “This always has been and always will be the cry of the human heart,” he said. Cutcheon was a former Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives. Earlier in his career, he was the superintendent of public schools in Springfield, Illinois, and met Abraham Lincoln. The two were friends. (And did he once break Lincoln’s nose? Maybe!)

Cutcheon died in 1900, and so was among the cemetery’s earliest interments. He’s buried along the main promenade, beneath an order of columns that has always caught my eye.


In 1904, J.L. Hudson and some of his pals purchased 135 acres across the street from Woodlawn to turn it into Michigan’s permanent state fairgrounds. The plan outraged some of the cemetery’s plot owners, who hated the idea of a festival happening in such close proximity to their rural peace and quietude. Wrote one upset reader in a letter to the editor of the Free Press:

A fair ground opposite beautiful Woodlawn cemetery! … A fair ground, of all things! Think of it! With its accompaniment of saloons, road houses, side shows, outside; inside, its horse races, ‘tom-toms’ beating day and night, and other diversities. … Picture if you please a funeral cortege wending its way slowly past this conglomerate aggregation, for people must die; they cannot wait for state fair week to get out of the way.


The midway at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, 1910. Via Detroit Public Library.

The cemetery outlasted the fairgrounds, which closed in 2009. And what became of J.L. Hudson? He caught pneumonia and died in England in 1912. He’s buried at Woodlawn.

Following Col. Hecker’s lead, Detroit’s especially wealthy — many of them made that way by the auto industry — built elaborate private mausoleums for themselves and their families. John and Horace Dodge died within a few months of each other in 1920. They are buried in one of the cemetery’s most famous memorials, an over-the-top Egyptian tomb with sphinxes guarding the gates. John Dodge’s widow, Matilda Dodge Wilson, and her second husband, Alfred Wilson, are entombed next door in a spectacular pink granite mausoleum with Art Deco flourishes by the sculptor Corrado Parducci. Henry Ford’s right-hand man, James Couzens — also a Mayor of Detroit — is buried in a stately Albert Kahn-designed mausoleum at the top of a hill. Ascend 36 steps in the hillside to get to the front door, raise the big bronze knocker, see if anyone’s home.


Wilson mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery. The medallion above the door is by Parducci.


Dodge Brothers mausoleum at Woodlawn, designed by Lloyd Brothers of Toledo, Ohio.


Couzens mausoleum at the top of the hill. 

In 1941, Woodlawn commissioned local architects Harley & Ellington to build a “community mausoleum” that would make above-ground burial accessible to everyone. Alvin Harley and his crew designed the CPA Building (recently the subject of a preservation kerfuffle) and the beautiful Horace Rackham Education Memorial Building in the Cultural Center, among other notable works. But the firm was also well-known for their community mausoleum designs, which had become something of a specialty after the triumph of their marvel in marble, the Temple of Memories at White Chapel Memorial Park.


The chapel at the Temple of Memories. Hoping to write more about this crazy place soon.


A detail from the exterior of the Temple of Memories at White Chapel Memorial Park.

Advertisements for the mausoleum at Woodlawn promised an experience that was warm, well-lighted, and comfortable — not cold and antiseptic. There would be easy chairs, cozy lamps, bouquets of cheerful flowers. The mausoleum offers exceedingly modest options for those who just want to be tucked away in a little niche for all eternity. And there are private family crypts as lavish as anything the Dodge Brothers could have dreamed up.

Alex Manoogian, founder of Masco and namesake of the now-Mayoral Manoogian Mansion, was originally interred in a private crypt at the mausoleum. In 2007 he and his wife were re-interred with state honors at the Holy Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Also at the mausoleum: the Reverend C.L. Franklin, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church and father of Aretha Franklin (who will also be at the mausoleum one day — hopefully a good long while from now). S.S. Kresge’s wife Anna Kresge is interred in a wondrous wood-paneled chapel with stained glass and kneelers in front of the tomb.


Anna Kresge’s private crypt at Woodlawn’s mausoleum.

And then there’s Rosa.

On November 2, 2005, after a seven-hour funeral service at Greater Grace Temple, Rosa Parks’s horse-drawn hearse processed seven miles to Woodlawn, along a route thronged with thousands of mourners. Some of them had arrived the day before to stake out a spot. Rosa Parks was interred in the cemetery’s chapel — designed by Albert Kahn and built in 1905, it was rededicated as the Rosa Parks Freedom Chapel in her honor.


The New York Times reported in 2006 that the cemetery was charging a premium for crypts near Rosa Parks. But Woodlawn argued that they had renovated the chapel at some expense, and had donated Ms. Parks’ funeral costs, and so had to raise their prices to recoup the cost — not to crassly profit off Rosa’s legacy.

Who else is at Woodlawn? Many of the most important Detroiters of the 20th century. Daisy Elliott, co-author of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. James Jamerson, bassist for the Funk Brothers. Edsel and Eleanor Ford. Esther Gordy, Berry Jr.’s sister and the founder of the Motown Museum. The poet Edgar Guest.

Oh, and y’all’d be mad if I forgot to mention this guy:


Hazen S. Pingree’s private mausoleum.

Here lies Hazen Pingree, Idol of the People. After his death in 1901, Pingree was interred at Elmwood Cemetery, but his wife Frances had his remains moved to Woodlawn in 1903. She had wanted, the papers reported, a private mausoleum for the family.

More photos and notable residents of Woodlawn in the gallery below. Say hello if you see me out there,  stalking deer, suffragists, or secret passageways in the mausoleum.


#cemeteries#dodge brothers#every cemetery in detroit#j.l. hudson#james couzens#levi stubbs#matilda dodge wilson#mausoleums#rosa parks#state fairgrounds#sullivan cutcheon#urban wildlife#woodlawn cemetery