During the late 19th and early 20th century, Pittsburgh was home to some of the world’s richest men, who made their fortunes in steel, coal, oil, banking, railroad and river transportation. Homewood Cemetery, built in 1878, is the resting place for many of them. Located in Point Breeze, a few miles outside of the city, the cemetery is a popular destination for nature and history enthusiasts alike.
Within a five-minute walk from the entrance, one finds what locals refer to as “Millionaire’s Row,” named for its wealthy residents. They include D.L. Clark (Clark Candy company), Henry J. and John Heinz (Heinz food company), Michael L. Benedum (oil and gas), James R. Mellon (banking), and Henry C. Frick (US Steel).
Considering the size, quality, and extravagance of the displays, one wonders if some men were attempting to compete with one another in death, as they had in life. The most artistic among these tributes is the Schoonmaker Memorial.
A Life Well Lived – James Martinus Schoonmaker
James Martinus Schoonmaker (June 30, 1842 – October 11, 1927) was the oldest of nine children. He left his studies at Western University of Pennsylvania (later became the University of Pittsburgh) to join the Union army when the Civil War began. Schoonmaker was assigned to the 1st Maryland Cavalry. Courageous and resourceful, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. At twenty, Schoonmaker became the youngest colonel in the Union Army, commanding the 14th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry. He was popular among his soldiers, always looking after their interests and keeping their morale and spirits up during the most challenging of situations. Schoonmaker was not afraid to countermand orders from his superior officers when he felt justified. In 1864, believing there was no Confederate resistance in Lexington, VA, Schoonmaker refused an order to destroy the town. Although he temporarily lost his command, Schoonmaker regained it after a military review confirmed his assessment of the situation. That same sense of integrity guided Schoonmaker throughout the rest of his life in his personal and business dealings.
In 1864, in the Third Battle of Winchester, Virginia, Schoonmaker and his troops dismounted their horses and charged the Confederate artillery at Fort Alabama, helping to secure a significant victory for the Union. He was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor on May 19, 1899. The entry in the United States Army Center of Military History citation reads: “During the Battle of Star Fort, Virginia, at a critical period, gallantly led a cavalry charge against the left of the enemy’s line of battle, drove the enemy out of his works, and captured many prisoners.” The victory boosted the spirits of the Union, and played a critical role in securing President Lincoln’s re-election.
After the war, Schoonmaker forged a successful business career. He became a coke magnate, vice president of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Road, and member of the Mellon Bank board of Directors.
Schoonmaker was a noted philanthropist, establishing the Association for the Blind and assisting in the construction of Pittsburgh Hospitals. The Schoonmaker Foundation of Pittsburgh continues to influence the city and surrounding areas today, funding the arts, education, history, and health care.
Schoonmaker’s memorial was created by Jakob Otto Schweizer, in the 1920s. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, he studied at the Industrial Art School in Zurich and the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in Germany. He settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1895, and became well-known for his war-related work.
Per Maxwell Whiteman’s book, Paintings and Sculpture at The Union League of Philadelphia, Schweizer created seven sculptures for the Gettysburg Battlefield, including the statue of Abraham Lincoln located in the Pennsylvania State Memorial. He recreated the statue of Lincoln for the Memorial Room at the Union League of Philadelphia.
An Angel For All Seasons
Despite the many statues I have seen in our travels, the Schoonmaker Memorial’s beauty and grandeur remain unsurpassed. I always feel a great sense of anticipation when walking up the hill towards the angel. Depending on the time of the day and nature of the light, the angel can assume different qualities.
It is difficult not to be awed by the angel. She is approximately seven feet tall and her wings — if unfolded — would span approximately twelve feet. In the spring, she is surrounded by a flowering dogwood tree.
In the summer, the greenery of the trees provide a pleasant background.
In the fall, the leaves provide a colorful contrast to the angel’s blueish-green patina. Sunset is best time to visit the memorial. The last rays of the day cast a golden light and moody shadows across the grave site.
In the winter, my eyes are drawn to its loveliness against the snow-covered landscape.
In infrared light, the statue takes on an even more magical quality.
The Guardian Angel
With her face gently turned toward the tomb, the angel wears an expression of sadness and approval as she lays the frond on the tomb.
The palm frond (associated with victory) celebrates Colonel Schoonmaker’s courageous achievements during the war. It also represents the triumph of the spirit over the flesh in death, as described in Revelation 7:9:
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”
The angel holds a bouquet of poppies in her right hand. In funerary art, red poppies symbolize death, renewal, and life. Red poppy seeds can remain dormant in the soil for years, until the soil is overturned, and they burst out in the beautiful red blossoms. Similarly, our soul is dormant in our physical body after death until God turns over the soil of our life, and our soul spreads its petals toward heaven.
The angel’s massive wings are folded behind her back. They point downward, signifying an untimely death. The right one is tilted upward slightly, as if she is ready to extend her wings and carry the soul heavenward.
The texture of the feathers gives one the impression that a light breeze has just swept through them. The delicate folds of her headscarf add a touch of style and grace.
With Passage of Time – The glory Remains
The angel contains human and ethereal qualities: a mourner weeping at the death of the great man, reminding us of his courageous life, and standing by to carry him home. This verse, by Erin Hanson, comes to mind when I see her:
Perhaps we only leave
So we may once again arrive,
To get a bird’s eye view
Of what it means to be alive.
For there is beauty in returning,
Oh, how wonderful, how strange,
To see that everything is different
But know it’s only you who’s changed.
Next time you are in the vicinity, stop by and visit the Schoonmaker memorial. I guarantee you will not be disappointed in this beautiful work of art.
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