The Winter Mausoleum is a popular attraction in Allegheny Cemetery. It is not difficult to understand why: it looks as if a Wizard Of Oz-style tornado deposited a Pharaoh’s Tomb in Pittsburgh.
A Brief History of the Winter Mausoleum
This mausoleum is a replica of one built for Frank Woolworth (of the Woolworth “five-and-ten” retail store fame), in 1921, located in the Woodlawn Cemetery, NY. Apparently, with enough nickels and dimes, one can build a pretty elaborate resting place!
Emil Winter was a talented Pittsburgh businessman. He moved with great success between wholesale meatpacking operations and the steel industry, eventually becoming the president of the Real Estate Loan and Trust Bank. In 1930, Winter commissioned John Russell Pope, who built the Woolworth mausoleum. Pope was strongly influenced by the King Tut Tomb, which was discovered in 1922. He would later design the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.
Guarding the Entrance
One of the most distinctive and impressive features of the mausoleum is a pair of sphynxes guarding the entrance. Symbols of the duality of the mortal and immortal, they are probably the most recognizable symbols of Ancient Egypt. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that the pair gracing the Winter Mausoleum was not based on the Egyptian models, but rather a combination of the Egyptian and Greek styles.
The sphinx sport traditional Egyptian headpieces on female heads and are “well-endowed.” This sets the sphynxes apart from others you may encounter.
The Many Faces of the Door
The ornate bronze door was designed by Julius C. Loester and cast by the Roman Bronze Company. It features a smorgasbord of imagery and symbols. The scene depicts a Pharaoh flanked by male and female figures. The male is passing the Ankh — a key to the hidden knowledge and the eternal aspect of the soul — to the Pharaoh, who is preparing to enter the next world. The scene is reminiscent of the painting in King Tutankhamen’s tomb, featuring the King, Anubis, and Nephthys. Anubis was the God of Death and the ruler of the underworld. Nephthys was the Goddess of Mourning, Lamentation, and the Protector of the Dead, among her other duties of assisting those in the afterlife.
Loester took some creative liberty in replicating this scene, however, as the figures in the Winter Mausoleum door are noticeably different than the original. Anubis is traditionally depicted as a God with a Canine head and Nephthys is usually portrayed with a crown representing a heavenly home (the hieroglyph representing the word “house”). The male on the Winter door has a very handsome human head, with the headpiece of a vulture, worn by Goddess Nekhbet, a protector of the Pharaohs.
The female’s headpiece, consisting of the staff and the opposing serpents, is reminiscent of that worn by Thoth, the God of wisdom, who participated in the judgment of the dead. Thoth is usually portrayed as the Ibis-headed creature.
Would images with Canine and Ibis heads make a more impressive presentation? Perhaps. Regardless of its adherence to strict Egyptian culture standards, however, the door represents an impressive work of art and craftsmanship.
Another interesting point about the door made by the Pittsburgh historian and cemetery photographer, Father Pitt, is that the Pharaoh’s face was modeled after that of Mr. Winter. I will leave it to our readers to determine how much they agree with this premise.
Vultures – Protected by Pharaoh
Two vultures reside at the top of the door. Vultures were often associated with Goddess Nephthys and protected by Pharaoh. They were believed to multiply without male assistance, thus symbolizing purity and motherhood. In feeding on the dead, the vultures transformed death into life, representing the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.
The meaning of the hieroglyphs framing the vultures proved more difficult to understand. After some research, I was very fortunate to have a distinguished archeologist, Ms. Samira Minetti, agree to translate them for me and provide some additional context. Her response:
“There’s one real phrase: di ankh djet means “given life for ever“, in the red circle. There’s also neb tawy, marked in the red square, which means “Lord of the Two Lands”. The rest is gibberish. This is a classic example where modern designers will pick up a few signs and then make up the rest, or get it very wrong.”
It is clear that while the Winter Mausoleum has many Egyptian elements, characters, and symbols, it is not purely Egyptian. Nor do the expressions translate into coherent patterns or messages one might expect of an authentic Egyptian tomb.
The columns of the mausoleum are as ornate as the rest of the mausoleum. The carving of the Papyrus represents a marsh where primordial life was born, as well as a representation of Lower Egypt. There are also carvings of the Lotus, a symbol of re-birth and representation of Upper Egypt. They were often depicted together, to convey the unity of the nation. In the middle of the column are the alternating images of Ankh and the Scarab beetle, two of the most venerated and recognizable images of Egyptian symbolism. The Scarab beetle symbolizes re-birth. It also signifies our earthly existence until the final moments when we are ready to spread our wings and fly toward the Sun, achieving our higher purpose and solidifying our relationship with God.
According to the book by John Ward, The Sacred Beetle: A Popular Treatise on Egyptian Scarabs in Art and History,”:
“When a person died and went to their final judgment, the gods of the underworld would ask many detailed and intricate questions which had to be answered precisely and ritually, according to book, The Egyptian Book of the Dead.” Since many people of those days were illiterate, even placing a copy of this scroll in their coffin would not be enough to protect them from being sent to Hell for giving a wrong answer. As a result, the priests would read the questions and their appropriate answers to the beetle, which would then be killed, mummified, and placed in the ear of the deceased. When the gods then asked their questions, the ghostly scarab would whisper the correct answer into the ear of the supplicant, who could then answer the gods wisely and correctly.”
The front of the mausoleum contains not one, but two carved depictions of the Winged Sun, a symbol of royalty, divinity, power, and the soul’s destiny in eternity. Mr. Winter certainly was not taking any chances, he was transitioning into the afterlife with all the accoutrements for eternal life and resurrection!
A Pharaoh on the Throne
The stained glass portrays a Pharaoh on the throne, surrounded by servants and adoring public. Whether this is how Mr. Winter imagined himself in an afterlife or merely a design he favored, we can only guess.
Despite the mausoleum’s mix of styles, symbols, and inaccurate depiction of the scenes and deities, the structure is artistic and grandiose. I have grown fond of it and appreciate how it has piqued my interest to investigate the history of Mr. Winter and Egyptian culture. In the succinct and eloquent words of Antonio Porchia, an Argentinian poet, “One lives in hope of becoming a memory”.
It is fair to say that if Mr. Winter held such hope, it has been realized. Most passerby can’t help but walk up to the mausoleum for a closer look and wonder who Mr. Winter was, and why he sought to erect such a lavish resting place.
Cemetery Art earns commissions for purchases made through links in this post, which are used to offset the costs of building and maintaining this site.