Green-Wood Cemetery’s Niche Market

For the Archtober blog of the Center for Architecture and Architects Newspaper, October 29, 2014.

The entrance to Green-Wood Cemetery's new columbarium by PBDW Architects.

The entrance to Green-Wood Cemetery’s new columbarium by PBDW Architects.

THE TREND in burial at Green-Wood Cemetery is decidedly toward cremation. Built in 1838, and the final resting place of 570,000 people, it is “literally running out of space,” according to Green-Wood President Richard J. Moylan. He estimates they’ll run out of space for in-ground burials in the next five years. “We could pack them in tighter, but that would ruin it,” he said.

The new Tranquility Gardens and Chapel/Crematorium, by PBDW Architects, focuses on the tradition of cremation, and specifically targets the growing Chinese population of nearby Sunset Park, Brooklyn. For some reason Asians are the dominant cremators and niche buyers. The architects have even included what look like elegant stone grills to accommodate traditional ceremonies where money and other materials are burnt.

Anne Holford-Smith, AIA, LEED AP, said her firm consulted a feng shui expert when designing the gardens and columbarium. “To make sure we don’t commit too many sins,” explained Moylan.

The “qi” flows well through the garden, which is dominated by a shallow pond, complete with koi fish. A footbridge over the pond supports a striking glass obelisk whose interior offers a place for contemplation. The path leads to the columbarium, Latin for dovecote, a building filled with niches to house urns of cremated remains.

“We really fell in love with the glass,” said Holford-Smith, explaining the dominant motif of the horseshoe-shaped columbarium that circles one end of the pond. PBDW wanted to bring “the outside inside, and the inside outside,” she said. Although they are somber and richly textured, the rooms have an airy openness, with floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing the rolling hills of the old-fashioned cemetery beyond.

Intimate spaces have curved walls of niches and discrete seating areas with upholstered furniture and soft carpeting. Orchids sit on coffee tables. The only sound is the rushing of air.

PBDW worked in several different materials, which Green-Wood offers at different price-points for its “niche” customers. Transparent glass is the most popular, followed by opaque granite. Frosted glass is not a big seller, and no one seems to want the wooden niches with folding doors and little locking compartments.

Apparently the columbarium’s customers want their jade urns, complete with small pictures of their deceased loved ones, visible to all passersby. Moylan explained that niches at eye- or heart-level are the most expensive. “It’s all location, location, location,” he said.