In the first decades after World War II American society evolved from an agrarian based community comfortable with nature to one more urban and distant from natural processes. The rituals of birth and death were removed from the home and institutionalized in large hospitals and mortuaries. In her popular 1963 book The American Way of Death Jessica Mitford described one of the outcomes of this process. Mitford depicted urbanized 20th century America as “death denying,” a culture determined to put as much physical distance between themselves and death as possible. Large, ornate mausoleums in well-manicured memorial parks became part of the American cultural landscape of denying death.In 1951 Paul R. Williams along with Ernest A. Jacobs, a member of his architectural staff, met with Harry Groman of Groman Brothers Mortuary to discuss building a multi-story mausoleum complex in Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City. As they walked the site, Williams communicated his design ideas for a deceptively simple building. Built on the crest of a hill, the mausoleum would appear somber, respectful and restrained to visitors. Entering the open circular vestibule (image 2-3) and moving unencumbered, a visitor could follow a number of paths that would lead to spectacular spaces incorporating the architect’s love of natural light, circles, elegant curves, and elliptical elements (image 4). The mausoleum’s pristine, white outer walls (image 1) would hold organically connected interior rooms with walls for hundreds of individual burials. The design would encourage contemplation, reflection and awe. As Williams described how the visitor would interact with the building’s design and finishes, Groman knew he had found an architect who shared his aesthetics and acknowledged the importance of symbols in the death and grieving process. (Wesley Howard Henderson. Two Case Studies of African-American Architects’ Careers in Los Angeles, 1890-1945, 1992)
Originally incorporated in 1941, Hillside Memorial Park began as a joint venture of the Groman brothers and Lazare Bernard. Known for its exceptional customer service, the mortuary strived to provide clientele with a total package including the accoutrements of shiva (seven day mourning period), bereavement resources, pet sitters, catering and even wardrobe shopping for the family. (Business Wire 8/17/2010) In short time the cemetery became the premiere burial site for elite members of the Jewish Hollywood film industry. As demand grew, space in the traditional cemetery became limited and the Gromans developed an expansion plan providing hundreds of new burial plots in a large, ornate vertical mausoleum. Though a relatively new idea in the United States, the Gromans believed Hollywood was ready for such a dramatic monumental concept. As an architect experienced with both mortuary design and the aesthetic tastes of Hollywood luminaries, Paul Williams was an excellent choice by the brothers for their new entombment concept.Listening to Williams’ plans for the mausoleum, Groman asked the architect to consider a related project that would complement the building. He asked Williams to include in his plans a large tomb for the recently deceased entertainer Al Jolson. Groman knew that Jolson’s burial site would be a magnet for the grieving public for years to come. Using Napoleon’s tomb in Paris as their model, the businessman and architect would create a Los Angeles architectural icon that would outlast Jolson’s memory.