Photo Flood 113: Bellefontaine Cemetery

photo by Colin Wright

Bellefontaine Cemetery was the focus of our second Photo Flood, and the first occasion that the media covered the Group’s concept. At the time, total membership consisted of only 25 photographers (less than 10 participated–one from Washington DC!), Mini-Floods had not yet been introduced, and our traditional background history format for the articles had not yet been established. With all of this in mind, we decided that it was high time to revisit this iconic location and give it the full PFSTL treatment it deserves.

photo by Sue Rakers

photo by Yvonne Suess

 

photo by Liz McCarthy

Ask any group of St. Louisans for advice on something to do while in town, and you’ll receive a lot of common answers: check out a Cardinals game, visit the Gateway Arch, explore the St. Louis Zoo, tour Anheuser-Busch Brewery, etc. If a suggestion comes up that’s not from the “standard list” of sites, the reason for its being suggested probably has something to do with its historical significance. Rare are those attractions, best known for their place in history, that remain as relevant as ever–Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum is one of those rare attractions.

photo by Jason Gray

 

photo by RJ Wilner

The history of Bellefontaine Cemetery begins with its founding in 1849, though a small family cemetery already existed on the land purchased for Bellefontaine (this cemetery for the Hempstead family was absorbed into Bellefontaine and exists to this day). During this time, St. Louis was rapidly transitioning from a scrappy wilderness outpost into a progressive urban center–a city that would, for a time, rival those east coast metropolises in commerce, culture and clout. This rivalry with other prominent cities of the time is what led St. Louis to establish Bellefontaine (a sprawling, manicured oasis based on modern European modes, and miles from the city center) as the first rural cemetery west of the Mississippi River. The year of the Cemetery’s founding was a troublesome, if timely, one, with the twin tragedies of a devastating cholera outbreak and a fire that consumed much of the city’s riverfront district.

Bellefontaine Cemetery soon attracted a pedigreed grounds superintendent and landscape architect to sculpt the appearance and direction of the Cemetery’s growth. Almerin Hotchkiss would remain in his role for over four decades, though his legacy is still very much felt (and observed). Hotchkiss is also the namesake for the stately receiving chapel designed by Eames and Young in 1909, and renovated in 2010.

In the early decades, the Cemetery acquired a portion of John O’Fallon’s country estate to expand itself to its current acreage of 314 acres. The intervening years brought waves of changes to the property, some subtle, some major, and tended to reflect either modernizations or shifting perceptions. That said, the Cemetery has maintained excellent stewardship throughout, even while the (living) population of St. Louis itself has declined.

photo by Jeni Kulka

 

photo by Jennifer Sarti

One of the most remarkable and exciting realities of Bellefontaine Cemetery has to do with its openness as a final resting place. Almost from the very beginning, the Cemetery has been an accessible burial site for most citizens, irregardless of religious association, economic class or race. It is worth noting that Bellefontaine never employed segregation burial practices, even though more than 90% of public cemeteries in St. Louis enforced racially restrictive covenants (similar to those racially restrictive deed covenants responsible for the segregation of so many St. Louis neighborhoods) well into the 20th century. What this means is that pages from all major chapters in the city’s history can be found within the stories of those interred here.

For instance, for those interested in photography, there are more than fifteen very important photographers buried at Bellefontaine, including those of national or international significance, like Thomas Martin Easterly, Fitz Guerin, and the Parrish Sisters (Williamina and Grace). There is also the intriguing story of how Ansel Adams, Louis Sullivan and Bellefontaine Cemetery all intersected to inspire the Saint Louis Art Museum to begin collecting photography. Bellefontaine is working on a compilation of stories involving photographers and the Cemetery; stay tuned to their blog for more information.

photo by Susan Kulka

 

photo by Joe Rakers

 

photo by Maureen Minich

On our recent visit, we were fortunate to be greeted by a representative for the Cemetery who provided the Group with some exciting opportunities for photography. After the event, PFSTL Founding Director Jason Gray was able to catch up with this representative, Dan Fuller, for the short interview below.

Dan Fuller, Event and Volunteer Coordinator Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum

PFSTL:

First of all, who is Daniel Fuller, and what is your role with Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum?

Dan Fuller:

I joined Bellefontaine in 2014 as a volunteer after a 30-year career in retail and wholesale. In 2017, the cemetery created my full-time role as Event and Volunteer Coordinator. I see myself as a shepherd of a large flock of volunteers all interested in different facets of the cemetery.

PFSTL:

Where does your interest in history come from?

Dan Fuller:

I have always had a history interest and have done family history for the past 25 years. Both interests have served me well in my role at Bellefontaine.

PFSTL:

Why do you think that it is important to preserve the histories of those interred at BCA, alongside maintaining a peaceful place of rest?

Dan Fuller:

First and foremost, we are a cemetery, and strive to create a rich and peaceful place for families to remember their loved ones. Our charter now is to collect and catalog these histories for future generations.

photo by Colin Wright

 

photo by Sue Rakers

 

photo by Mike Matney

PFSTL:

What are the origins of BCA, and how was the formation of the Cemetery impacted by other developments in St. Louis at the time?

Dan Fuller:

Bellefontaine is the oldest rural/garden cemetery west of the Mississippi.  Pere Lachaise in Paris is the model that we follow, [an idea that] came about as forward thinkers in St. Louis identified such a need in our growing city.

PFSTL:

Are there any key figures attached to the organization of the Cemetery, either during its inception or through the years?

Dan Fuller:

Yes, the most important being Almerin Hotchkiss, who designed the initial 148 acres.

PFSTL:

For Photo Flood Saint Louis, our focus has primarily been on the growth of the city’s neighborhoods over time, whereas, I imagine that your focus at BCA is more upon the city’s residents and the achievements of individuals. How much of the city’s neighborhoods have you explored, and how has knowing the stories of individual residents enriched your exploration and appreciation of those places?

Dan Fuller:

Our residents are the past residents of the neighborhoods of which you speak. Both sides are interwoven as two sides of the same coin.

PFSTL:

I know that you have discovered many inroads of connection between the Cemetery and the city’s historical figures, significant architectural modes, and cultural and business successes. Do any surprises stand out?

Dan Fuller:

All peoples are here at Bellefontaine, so it is a complete view of the city–not just movers and shakers. The biggest surprise for me is the forward thinking and liberal stance of St. Louis in an otherwise conservative state.

PFSTL:

Is there national significance for the Cemetery?

Dan Fuller:

Yes, Bellefontaine is an essential part of the historic cemeteries of the United States. As an active cemetery, we are still collecting and preserving the happenings of today, which will be tomorrow’s history.

photo by Yvonne Suess

 

photo by RJ Wilner

PFSTL:

When did the Arboretum come about, and are there any interesting facts about this component alone?

Dan Fuller:

In 2015, we received our status as an arboretum, but it was more technical paperwork. Nothing changed on the grounds. The trees are part of the soul of the Cemetery, all 9,000 of them!   

PFSTL:

What is the best time of year to visit the Arboretum?

Dan Fuller:

All times of the year will give different views and feels of the Cemetery. The seasons, which are reflected in the cycle of life–Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter–are the thread that brings history and horticulture together.

PFSTL: What projects are ongoing at BCA?

Dan Fuller: Many, but the one I think will interest you most is our Archive Project. Bellefontaine has secured Past-Perfect Software and is just beginning to digitize our full Archive.

PFSTL:

How would you like to see BCA interacting with other cultural institutions throughout the area?

Dan Fuller:

We have connections with Missouri History Museum, Missouri Botanical Gardens, St. Louis Central Library, and some house museums such as Campbell House and Field House. Bellefontaine is also a member of Historic Saint Louis

photo by Joe Rakers

 

photo by Jason Gray

 

photo by Jeni Kulka

Going back to the example of places to visit in St. Louis, Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum absolutely deserves to be on your list. Whether your interest is in the location’s inexhaustible mine of history, its truly breathtaking park-like beauty, or its dazzling display of architecture, there is something for everyone here, all of which makes it easy to understand why so many St. Louisans have chosen to never leave.

photo by Mark McKeown

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