Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Mountain View Cemetery is the resting place of famous and infamous figures alike.
People like author Frank Norris, artist Thomas Hill, architects Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck, captains of industry such as powerful railroad builder and banker Charles Crocker...all made their contributions to the shaping of a nation’s frontier.
As Americans moved westward, man had achieved dominion over the land, overcoming hardships and nature to continue the march to California. But as man triumphed over his environment, he also came to question his place in nature. Mountain View Cemetery is an outgrowth of this contemplation.
Mountain View Cemetery is distinguished from other cemeteries by its architect’s vision of man and nature and their relationship to each other. Mountain View Cemetery serves as an example of the American search for a civilized life in harmony with the environment.
The historic Cemetery master plan was designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted — the architect of New York City’s Central Park, Capitol Grounds in Washington D.C., Stanford University, and Yosemite Park (he minimized the intrusion of man on Yosemite’s natural wonders) — Mountain View Cemetery was intended to express a harmony between man and the natural setting.
Park-like cemeteries, such as Mountain View Cemetery, were brought into being by various cultural forces of the 19th century. Cultural and religious shifts in sensibility, as well as 19th-century English and American romantics helped encourage the idea that a park-like cemetery represented the peace of nature, to which man’s soul returns.
As open spaces disappeared in the larger cities, the new garden-style burial ground became perceived as one replacement for the forests and fields that had been devoured by urbanization and industrialization. In America the park cemetery embodied the “wilder,” more natural elements of a view common to early 19th Century philosophy and culture: “God made the country, and man made the town.”
Olmsted took a unique approach to Mountain View Cemetery. His park cemetery integrated the Parisian grand monuments and broad avenues. Olmsted also drew on a popular philosophy of the times, American Transcendentalism, to help shape his vision of the cemetery. American Transcendentalism embodied Asian philosophy, which believed that all of nature flows from the same wellspring, that is, trees and flowers, water and air — and man — are part of nature. From this philosophy, Olmsted believed that the straight line of man’s industry and the curved shape of nature’s oak branch could once again peacefully co-exist.
And co-exist they did. Olmsted’s design was completed and accepted by the distinguished board of trustees in 1863, and construction began. In the lower and more level portion of Mountain View Cemetery, near its entrance gates, Olmsted designed a straight avenue lined by trees. On the slopes of six hills skirting this avenue, he constructed curved lanes and paths like tributaries flowing down from the hills to make possible a gradual ascent and descent, like the twisting roads of the park cemeteries set in England.
To native California live oaks he added transplanted Italian cypress, Lebanese cedar, and Italian stone pine. Simple in form and color, distinctive in shape and compatibility, the trees helped create a setting of beauty and grace, complementing the walkways, roads and chapels which help create a peace of mind and thoughtfulness.
The balance between nature and artifice naturally shifted over the years. Families building at Mountain View Cemetery added more monuments and chapels, expressing the aspirations of newly affluent families to an eastern sophistication and Victorian respectability. With its abundance of man-made architectural structures, Mountain View Cemetery became even more attractive to the noted families of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
All these developments came to Mountain View Cemetery without lessening the cemetery’s appeal to families who found the beauty and peacefulness of its setting in perfect harmony with their expectations of a fitting place for honoring the dead.
In Olmsted’s vision, nature and human destiny are intertwined. They converge. Man is not in nature. He is nature, and our notion that we can depart from nature’s process even for a moment is gently put to rest.
Mountain View Cemetery is a distinctive setting, capturing and expressing truths of the fabled Gardens of Eden and Gethsemane, of Parisian sophistication, English culture and American spirit. Nature and man are brought into harmony here, more successfully, perhaps, than anywhere else in California.
Today, Mountain View Cemetery captures the imagination of the visitor who can’t help being swept away by its grandeur and by a quality which one might call the essential spirit of the place. It is a place where the dignity of Nature is appreciated by those whose sentiments respond to the beauty and serenity of the setting with a sense of reverence and awe. What better place to contemplate eternity, nature and man’s destiny?