There are 80,000 stories in Richmond's city of the dead, and in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery , published by the Valentine Richmond History Center, John O. Peters speaks for Hollywood Cemetery's mute monuments.
He traveled the state for a survey of Virginia's courthouses co-authored with his wife and published in 1995 by the University of Virginia Press, visiting 126 of them. He explains, "It quickly became apparent if the photography was going to get done … the simple solution for getting the pictures was for me to take them."
In 2004, Peters authored a history of Petersburg's Blandford Cemetery, for which he also provided photographs, and the retired lawyer has either written or contributed images to seven books.
Peters will speak about and sign his latest book on Oct. 5 at 6 p.m., for the St. John's Church Fall Liberty Lecture. Admission is free.
Q: Hollywood's been much written about, but yours is by far the biggest and most illustrated book on the subject. Why now?
A: As a result of my Blandford Cemetery book, I learned a great deal about cemeteries. They're very different places, each with wonderful attributes, but I did think as well that there was still plenty left to be written about Hollywood. Still, it's all a bit intimidating to do something new.
And nobody has ever written extensively about the aesthetic elements of the cemetery, the stone carvings and the people who made them, the ironwork, the designers of the mausoleums.
Q: You get into the various wranglings of the cemetery's governing board — one of their vehement debates was about, of all things, ironwork in the cemetery.
Ironwork in cemeteries, nationwide and not just in Hollywood, began in the 1850s and by the 1860s generally had fallen into disfavor. And while ironwork in Richmond was an important architectural element, until close to the end of the 19th century, the board didn't think much of it in Hollywood. There were maintenance issues and an aesthetic issue. They believed ironwork was incompatible with the cemetery's pastoral qualities.
Q: Hollywood is as much for the living as the dead, and it was conceived as such.
A: Many Richmonders think of it in Civil War terms, but I think you have to start with the rural cemetery movement that came before the war. Hollywood is one of America's greatest rural cemeteries.
It was immensely important during the mid-19th century: socially, culturally and theologically. Furthermore, society was becoming industrialized and depersonalized, and many felt they were losing touch with nature and the cycles of life, death and regeneration. Green spaces were disappearing at a very rapid rate. These kinds of cemeteries were in essence the forerunner of public parks.
Q: It's interesting to me that some of the best views of the river were allocated to people who can't possibly appreciate it.
A: [ Laughs ] Some indication in the newspapers at the beginning was given by the people who were trying to get the cemetery off the ground that there'd been plans to develop that acreage, but it was put off because the land is too rugged.
I think the magic of [Philadelphia architect] John Notman's 1847 plan for Hollywood is that he transformed it into a manageable place. The original Hollywood was a very elongated site with little river frontage. It was a string of four hilltops. Several of them were pretty rugged. And it was not an easy task to turn that space into a cemetery.
Q: Because this is Richmond, and nothing ever happens here without a fight, the community squared off on either side of whether a big burying ground should go there. Arguments suggesting that the deteriorating bodies would poison the water and so forth.
A: It's impossible to document, but there were a lot of harsh feelings. The [Richmond] Enquirer newspaper took a strong position against it, and I have little more than mere suspicion that there were more political issues related to the founders or some other factors.
I tend to think there were issues or objections that could be rebutted. I don't think it was mere folly when critics questioned that the cemetery would block the western expansion, or taking developable land to turn it into a burial ground, or the fact that the pipes from the pump house ran under the cemetery to the reservoir. I don't consider these charges to be baseless. I think before the cemetery had a shot at viability, those objections had to be answered. It took a decade —
Q: And James Monroe.
A: James Monroe's internment turned Hollywood from a very controversial undertaking into a success. You have to take it one step further. With the Civil War, [Hollywood's place in history was ensured].
Q: Your photographs attest to the fact that Hollywood is also an outdoor art gallery. What do you find to be some of the most interesting sculptures in the cemetery?
A: Well, primarily because it's so interesting to me because that one artist did all three; the monuments in the Jefferson Davis plot.
One man, Romanian-born George Julian Zolnay, who'd come to this country and achieved some renown, made the bronze of Davis, that allegorical angel for his daughter Winnie, and the other androgynous figure for his other daughter — it has very modern aspects to it, it's an open book with "Pax" on the back of it, and the grim figure standing between the leaves of the book. And the three of them are artistically quite different.
Varina Davis, [the Confederate leader's] wife, insisted that Zolnay put him in the suit he was wearing when captured in order to refute the claims he was wearing women's clothing.
Q: And then, there's the iron Newfoundland dog.
A: Oh, yes, the dog. It's in the Rees family plot; prior to the Civil War, [Charles Rees] was one of the city's best photographers. I use an account written by a descendant for one of the newspapers. One of Rees' sons was fond of this iron dog that sat in front of a store on Main Street. He'd walk by and pat it or ride it. During the Civil War, Rees acquired the dog [statue] because the boy was fond of it, and put it in the cemetery to protect it from getting converted into munitions. The dog was mass-produced by a firm out of Baltimore.
Sometime in the 1980s, maybe earlier, its tail was broken off. This became a topic of some concern to the board. They finally found someone who would do it for a reasonable cost, and since they'd finally accomplished this, and it was such a good deal, they said: let's buy three. So they can go through at least two more disappearances of the dog's tail.
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.