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Exploring the grand, lonely beauty of Sunset Memorial Cemetery

Most prominent in the snow-covered landscape are a series of structures designed by Sidney Lovell in the 1920s.

Sunset Memorial Cemetery is located just inside the city of St. Anthony.
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

Sunset Memorial Cemetery, located just inside the city of St. Anthony, right at the very top of Minneapolis – in terms of both geography and topography – is a slightly different sort of cemetery than other ones in the cities that I’ve written about before. Most are smaller, modestly appointed plots designed for a specific ethnic or religious community. Sunset, built in 1922 in what were then far-flung suburbs barely reachable by streetcar, seems by comparison designed to rival Lakewood Cemetery. Like its more famous counterpart to the southwest, it is a non-sectarian, grandly landscaped site spread over 130 acres, imparting less the communal aspect of a tight-knit community, and more a sense of physical beauty and contemplation rooted in 19th-century ideas about death and remembrance.

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One of the reasons I’m compelled to return to cemeteries again and again is that they’re such great places to walk. What other part of a city is so focused on foot traffic, so amenable to pedestrians? Cemeteries are designed to be walked through, to be admired. They’re designed for you to linger for a while, to be alone with your thoughts. There’s always a variety of architectural styles and sculptural objects to see. You meet – well, in some sense you meet – a lot of interesting people from all walks of life.

It’s a little different in the winter. Death is the great equalizer, but a heavy snowfall makes it so that only the tallest and most ornate markers are visible. All else is blanked out. Sunset Park is a very large site, and so the blow drifts and accumulates the way it would on a prairie, in huge, undisturbed mounds. In some parts of the cemetery, it’s knee-deep, and walking through, even for a few yards, can be exhausting. 

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
A heavy snowfall makes it so that only the tallest and most ornate markers are visible.

The cemetery is divided up into several sections, most of which have vaguely ecumenical, nondenominational names given to them in the 1920s – Vesperland, Slumberland, Homeward, Eventide. Each section also has some sort of architectural element to distinguish it.

The financing for the cemetery was provided in part by a very successful 29-year-old Minneapolis attorney named Fred Ossanna. Born to Italian immigrants in Michigan in 1893, Ossanna graduated from the University of Minnesota and was active in a number of Italian-American civic organizations throughout his very long career. However, he is probably best known today as the subject of one of what I’d say is among the 10 or so most infamous photographs in the annals of local history: Ossanna, in a rain slicker and suit, being handed a check related to his duties in overseeing the dismantling of the Twin Cities Rapid Transit rail lines, as the last of the local streetcars burns away in the background. Ossanna himself lived to be almost 90 years old, and spent his final years in Florida – he’s buried not at Sunset, but at Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Broward County.

Most prominent in the landscape are a series of structures designed by Sidney Lovell in the 1920s. Lovell was one of the best-known mausoleum architects in the United States in the early 20th century, and probably the most prolific. Based in Chicago, he began his career designing the sorts of ornate theaters you still find in urban cores. He was commissioned to create a mausoleum in his hometown in the late 1910s, and developed such a taste for it he devoted the rest of his career to it, designing structures all over the Midwest through the 1940s, from Kansas to Pennsylvania. 

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Tower of Memories lives up to the grandiosity of its name — it’s quite a structure, a stately, 75-foot Art Deco tower that wouldn’t look out of place next to the Rand or Ivy Towers in downtown Minneapolis.

Lovell’s early background in theatrical design and his taste for monumental designs still shows through in the work he created for Sunset. In the middle of the park is a mausoleum at one end of a Roman-style reflecting pool, with the Tower of Memories at the other end. The Tower of Memories lives up to the grandiosity of its name – it’s quite a structure, a stately, 75-foot Art Deco tower that wouldn’t look out of place next to the Rand or Ivy Towers in downtown Minneapolis. One source notes that the marble for the mausoleum and other structures was cut and assembled in Italy under Lovell’s supervision, and then shipped back to Minneapolis to be reassembled onsite.

In the summer, the mall is quite beautiful. In the winter – the pool emptied and the surroundings adrift in snow – it’s an equally beautiful scene, but with a sparseness that makes the Tower of Memories seem a little lonelier and more theatrical.

An interesting note on the Tower, added well after it was built: There’s a plaque commemorating Cmdr. Newell Franklin Olson of the United States Navy, who died in an air disaster on Memorial Day in 1957. He died, in fact, right over the cemetery: during a tight formation, low-altitude ceremonial flyover for the holiday, Cmdr. Olson’s jet collided with another in midair, crashing a few blocks away at 19th Ave. NE and Pierce Street NE. Olson was killed immediately, and four civilians on the ground were seriously injured.

The next day, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey read the following comments into the Congressional Record: “I do not feel that pilots should be called upon to make the kind of low-altitude, tight formation flights, which are hazardous both to themselves and the general public below. I regret the loss of Commander Olson. He was a fine officer. … Frankly, I do not feel that these pilots in the armed services, who lead a hazardous enough life as it is, should be called on to fly tight-formation flights which are not for a training purpose. Of course, flying at low altitudes over heavily populated areas is simply asking for trouble.”

In the wake of Olson’s death and several similar air disasters across the U.S. over several decades, Humphrey proposed a uniform policy forbidding tight formation non-training, ceremonial flights at altitudes of less than 5,000 feet in the aviator’s honor. Olson himself is buried at Fort Snelling.

One of the sadder parts of visiting a cemetery in the winter is that since most of the headstones are buried, it is hard to track down specific people. There were two headstones in particular I was looking for, but they were buried below feet of snow. Despite not locating them, I knew they were in there somewhere. Buried in this cemetery are the two matriarchs of Italian-American cooking in Minneapolis: The first is Rosenella Winifred Cruciani “Rose” Totino, the Northeast Minneapolis restaurateur who would develop the Midwestern-style cracker-crust frozen pizza that dominated American TV dinners, children’s parties, and rec rooms for the entire last half of the 20th century. The other is perhaps Rose Totino’s opposite number from a strictly culinary standpoint: Giovanna “Mama D” D’Agostino, the proprietor of the famous Mama D’s Italian restaurant in Dinkytown, which fed home-cooked red-sauce Italian meals to a generation of University of Minnesota students (and whose various cookbooks lament the triumph of frozen cuisine in the American kitchen). Two radically different approaches to Italian cooking, both equally influential in their own ways. 

Perhaps when the snow has thawed, I’ll go back to try again. In the meantime, I enjoyed seeing the gray winter sky turn pink and red and then purple and blue as the sun set in the western sky over the twinkling lights of downtown Minneapolis, which appear to rest almost below the cemetery at the bottom of a hill, way off in the distance.