Columbarium of San Francisco

Columbarium of San Francisco

The Columbarium of San Francisco is a repository for human ashes owned and operated by the Neptune Society of Northern California. Built in 1898 by architect Bernard J.S. Cahill, the Columbarium is a beautiful example of Neo-Classical architecture. The copper-domed Columbarium holds the remains of some of San Francisco's most prominent founding families, and memorials to such notable individuals as Harvey Milk. It is the only non-denominational burial place in the City of San Francisco with space available.

The Columbarium is at 1 Loraine Court, near the intersection of Stanyan and Anza Streets, just north of Golden Gate Park. It is open to the public.

History

The Columbarium was once part of the Odd Fellows Cemetery, which encompassed approximately 27 acres. It was built to complement an existing crematorium designed by Cahill in 1895.

In 1902 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance to prohibit the sale of cemetery lots or permit any further burials within the city. By late 1910, cremation was also prohibited. The Odd Fellows, forced to abandon their cemetery, established Green Lawn Cemetery in Colma. Transfer of bodies began in 1929 and many families also chose to remove their urns from the Columbarium. The crematorium and various mausoleums were demolished, and many of the headstones were used to build a seawall at Aquatic Park. Only the Columbarium remained.

After a time, The Columbarium was sold to the Bay Cities Cemetery Association and later to Cypress Abbey. As it passed from one organization to another it fell into disrepair. In 1980, the Neptune Society of Northern California bought it and began restoration.

In 1996, the building was added to the register of San Francisco Landmarks.

Design

The Columbarium combines baroque and neoclassical features. Cahill was probably inspired by the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. The diameter, from the entrance to the stained glass window opposite, is 64 feet. The width of the rotunda within the Inner circle is 29 feet and the rotunda reaches a height of about 45 feet.

The eight rooms on the ground floor bear the names of the mythological winds. Six of the ground floor rooms feature beautiful stained glass windows. The window in the Aquilo room depicting three angels in flight, is attributed equally to Louis Comfort Tiffany or John LaFarge. The first floor rooms are named after constellations. The second and third floors are simpler in design.

The ground floor contains approximately 2,400 niches, the first floor 2,500, and the second and third floors approximately 1,800 each.

Keeping memories alive

Many of the niches in The Columbarium contain pictures and personal memorabilia that provide uncanny insight into the lives of the those interred. Even the urns themselves often reflect the individual's personality. People have used cookie jars, teapots, brandy decanters and piggy banks to celebrate the memory of loved ones.

On the Columbarium tour, caretaker Emmitt Watson provides an oral history of the lives represented in the niches. Employed at The Columbarium since the Neptune Society acquisition, Watson has spent years becoming familiar with the niches and listening to visiting families' stories as he worked on the building's restoration. The personal anecdotes and intimate details Watson reveals about the "apartments" on his tour transforms the morbidity one would might expect from a walk through a cemetery into a funny and often touching trip down memory lane.

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