“Peeping Tomb” – Sunlight & Stained Glass in Detroit’s Historic Woodlawn Cemetery

Original photography by Kevin Walsh. Also featured on Digging Detroit.

Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery offers a unique historical walk through Detroit’s golden era, founded in the late 1890s by Detroit’s captains of industry and politics

Founded in 1895 – Woodlawn Cemetery – 19975 Woodward Ave, Detroit

I first encountered the magic of Woodlawn on a walking tour with Bailey Sisoy-Moore, founder of Detroit History Tours. I then was forutnate enough to become a guide in her tour company’s “Buried in Detroit” bus tour of multiple historic cemeteries.

Incorporated in 1895, it offered the opportunity of a new subdivision of mausoleums when they were either not permitted (or perhaps frowned upon) in other city’s established public and private memorial gardens.

The Albert Kahn-designed Rosa Parks Freedom Chapel – with the Amazon’s upcoming distribution center looming across Woodward Avenue.

It’s located across from the State Fairgrounds–at the turn of the century considered the distant country before the city lines engulfed so many villages and neighborhoods following the boom of Henry Ford’s $5 work-day and the influx of immigrants and Americans from across the country.

The relatively modest grave of Henry Ford’s only son Edsel who died during WWII helming the construction of the Willow Run bomber plant for the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Two of his four children are buried on the same grounds, Benson and William Clay Ford.

In addition to founding-fathers of Detroit’s industry, Woodlawn is also the home for some of Motown’s great talents including lead singers for the Four Tops, Temptations and the Spinners

Lead singer of the Spinners first top 10 hit, “I’ll be Around,” Bobbie Steel Smith
Singer of “My Girl,” David Ruffin of the Temptations
Four Tops founder Levi Stubbs

The most recent newsworthy burial in 2018 was following the nationally telecast funeral for Aretha Franklin, who sang at the funeral of Rosa Parks 12 years earlier.

Lower level, south end of the Main Mausoleum
Aretha Franklin, her father, brother and two sisters are interred in the 1942 Main Mausoleum

Woodlawn is just a few miles south of me so I stop by often with my camera, particularly when the sunlight provides great depth and beauty to the grounds–and particularly to its art and architecture in the brilliant late winter sunshine. And unlike a walking or bus-tour, a walk by yourself allows you to really spend time at the painstaking work put into each of these masterpieces.

Sunlight & Stained Glass

The following shots caught my eye on a gorgeous day–leading me to taking a look through the bronze framed windows then heading to the rear of the mausoleum to see the artwork from the other side.

Rosa Parks

My first and favorite stop is just to the left of the entrance–the fabulous Kahn-designed Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel, renamed after the civil rights icon’s death in Detroit in 2006. The peace is palpable as you enter the beautifully quiet area and see the reflection of the stained glass over her name.

This weekend was warm enough and dazzlingly bright so I took a couple trips to focus on the spectacular stained-class found in Woodlawn. I’ve got some notes on who occupies these memorials, detailed further in our toors, but mainly this is a glimpse of the images that can only be captured through perfect lighting conditions–sometimes through very dusty windows.

Waldo Avery

One of Woodlawn’s founders and president of the US Gypsum Company and chief supplier of alabaster and plaster for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago–known most recently as the setting for The Devil in the White City.

Robert H. Traver

Successful retail clothier, Traver’s 5-story building still stands on Woodward Ave. across from the old Hudson’s building.

Enoch Wiggins

Theatre owner and philanthropist, Wiggins got his start in the circus and entertained the growing city with everything from waxworks to vaudeville.

Clark James Whitney

Whitney, also a prominent showman in Detroit, ran what was considered one of the gateways to Broadway.

Hazen Pingree

Detroit’s favorite Mayor and famous for his care for the city’s poor, Pingree became governor while he was still mayor and ran both offices until he was forced to choose Lansing.

The Dodge Brothers: Horace & John

Both auto-pioneers passed in 1920–John in January and Horace the following December.

Matilda Dodge Wilson

John Dodge’s widow married Alfred Wilson and, in addition becoming Michigan’s first female lieutenant governor for 1940, built Meadowbrook Hall in Rochester. Her 1939 commissioned art deco mausoleum stands in stark contrast lakeside beside her first husband’s resting place.

Matilda Dodge Wilson oversaw the design of this seven panel bronze door honoring her family and two husbands’ careers.

Merrill L. Mills

Prior to being known as the Motor City, Detroit was known for its cast-iron stoves. Merrill Mills’ Detroit Stove Works was famous for its Jewel stove with over 800 models.

George W. Balch

Detroit’s first school board president and founder of Michigan Bell.

Frank Grainger Smith

Wealthy jeweler with four wives, Frank Smith died of mysterious circumstances in the waters of Miami Beach in 1936.

Conrad Pfeiffer

Brewer of the Pfeiffer beer, with the iconic mascot Johnny Pfeiffer.

George T. Stevens

While Mr. Stevens’ history remains a mystery of this writing his tomb offers three cherubin–causing either charm or a bit of eeriness.

I encourage you to take the next sunny afternoon and stroll through time in the very walkable Woodlawn Gardens.

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About Kevin Walsh

Kevin began MyMediaDiary.com in 2013 as an experiment that was as simple as "What's a blog?" and ended up becoming a forum for fellow writers. He's been a high school teacher for 28 years and worked as an administrator and instructor in colleges for 6. Contact him at: kevin@mymediadiary.com He is also the producer of the web-series and blog, www.DiggingDetroit, founder and producer for MMD Productions at www.mmdphotovideo.com which offers quick, professional photography, video and multimedia solutions for individuals, organizations and businesses. His high school media production text, "Video Direct," has been used in 40 states--and he occasionally still sells a few. He is the current president of the non-profit DAFT (Digital Arts Film and Television) which sponsors the Michigan Student Film Festival. He lives in Royal Oak, Michigan, is married to Patrice and is tolerated by his two kids Aidan and Abby who have all graciously allowed him to write about them on occasion. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kwteacher

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