Part of my fascination with the Wilhelm Portland Memorial is the combination of the ornate with the mundane, and the unconsidered problems of running an indoor cemetery. This all comes together in the flower rooms.
People bring flowers to graves. Outdoors this isn’t a problem — but how do you leave flowers when a headstone may be 10 feet over your head?
Every grave in mausoleum has a small vase attached to it. On a few of the older historic graves these are a granite extension of the headstone or attached in a permanent fashion — on the newer graves there’s a small ring that holds a detachable vase. These are the vases Tender Branson stole his flowers from.
So that solves the problem of where to put the flowers — but what about people who show up with a full bouquet that’s not going to fit into the small vase? Each floor of the mausoleum has several flower rooms. These are rooms or alcoves with a sink, extension claw for placing the vases, garbage can, and a set of flower clippers attached to the sink via a chain.
These rooms are a time machine through the history of commercial kitchen/bathroom design. Sometimes you’ll have several decades of design trends in a single, frankenstein-ish room.
The flower rooms are a bizarre intrusion of the practical into the otherwise dream-ish world of the dead.
The quality of the light at the Wilhelm Portland Memorial is a considerable part of its creepy spell. You may find yourself in a dark corner, squinting at the indirect light dimly illuminating the corridor. Turn the corner and full panel fluorescence with their faint hum will stare back at you from the ceilings and walls — unless you’re under the moss and rust covered skylights that illuminate sections of the lower floors.
The memorial has 8 floors of tombs, but that’s deceptive. Ground level is the fifth floor, and floors 1 – 4 are carved into the side of a ridge overlooking the Oak Bottom Wildlife refuge. This means when you make a left from the long corridors of tombs on any particular floor into the northern chapel areas, your eyes will be assaulted by sunlight from the full windows in the west facing wall.
This sunlight is also peppered through the twister corridors of tombs via opaque windows. Some are priceless stained glass, others glazed glass or plastic that’d be more at home in a 70s bathroom set.
All this puts your pupils in a contant state of adjustment, and with the slight burning that comes from the scent funeral homes use to mask the smell of formaldehyde and the dead, combined with the smell of formaldehyde and the dead, your psyche is left open to any suggestion the thousands of sleeping dead may have.