Houston’s famed Glenwood Cemetery to build visitors center
HOUSTON (AP) — The most expensive land in Houston isn’t a lot in River Oaks or a corner near the posh Galleria mall.
The Houston Chronicle reports on 88 acres near the edge of downtown, a 30-square-foot parcel — roughly the footprint of a walk-in closet — sells for as much as $50,000. It’s set on a lake, has postcard views of the downtown skyline and is just big enough to hold a casket and two urns.
“It’s kind of like buying a house. It’s all about location,” Richard Ambrus, executive director of Glenwood Cemetery, said on a recent tour of the historic property tucked between Buffalo Bayou and the bars along Washington Avenue.
Ambrus, who took over cemetery operations in 1983, has overseen a series of significant upgrades over the years, including developing new sections, improving drainage systems and adding the lake. Since he’s been at the helm of the storied cemetery, lot prices at Glenwood have climbed more than 1,000%.
Now, Ambrus is launching another project likely to add even more value to Glenwood, the historic resting place of many of the city’s most notable names: Bob McNair, Denton Cooley, George Hermann, William P. Hobby and arguably its most famous, Howard Hughes.
The nonprofit foundation that controls Glenwood has approved construction of a family and visitors center. The new building, to be developed near the cemetery’s Washington Avenue entrance, will be a little more than 12,000 square feet and have room to host gatherings, educational events and space for genealogists to conduct research. It will also provide much needed space for families to gather before and after funerals.
“People who have come in and lost a loved one, this is a place of comfort. They come in here and feel more relaxed,” Ambrus said. “We have to kind of recreate that in our new building.”
The building will also offer modern space for the administration, which has been operating from an 1888 building designed to look like cottage. When Ambrus, a former CPA, took the cemetery job, the cottage, which was expanded in 1995 and will be preserved for use for smaller events, had no running water or bathrooms.
Glenwood had been a client of Ambrus’ accounting practice, and the cemetery’s president at the time asked if he would be interested in taking on a greater role, leading to a job as general manager.
“After a period of years, the development aspect of Glenwood was what really took my interest,” Ambrus said.
At the time, Glenwood was just 55 acres, of which only about five were undeveloped. In the following years, the cemetery grew by some 33 acres. The expansion included the merger in 1999 with the adjacent Washington Cemetery, originally a German cemetery established in 1887.
Washington Cemetery had fallen into disrepair until around the 1970s, when a group of volunteers started cleaning it, cutting the grass and working on restoring the monuments. The group eventually gained control of the cemetery, and Glenwood thereafter took over its maintenance. At the time of the merger with Glenwood, Washington had more than seven acres of undeveloped property and a small endowment.
“It’s turned out to be a very good deal for both parties,” Ambrus said.
Another large parcel Ambrus added had been under the control of the Harris County Flood Control District. That property includes the lake, which was added about four years ago. While it added value to the property around it, the lake, which is used to irrigate the property, also nearly eliminated Glenwood’s water bill.
The next step, the addition of the 12,000-square-foot facility designed by Dillon Kyle Architects, is estimated to cost $15 million. Glenwood so far has raised about $7 million, with construction expected to begin next summer.
Peers applaud the changes Ambrus has made at Glenwood.
“Dick Ambrus has made tremendous strides in beautifying, improving and further developing both Glenwood and Washington cemeteries, while at the same time preserving their important history,” said Donna Sumner-O’Neill, president of the historic Magnolia Cemetery, just south of Buffalo Bayou along Montrose Boulevard.
Glenwood was chartered by the state legislature in 1871 and operated as a for-profit enterprise until it went bankrupt and the property went into receivership. In 1904, a court released the land to the lot owners to run as a nonprofit cemetery association. The association was incorporated in 1965, but the structure of the business has essentially been the same since 1904.
At 148 years old, many Houstonians assume Glenwood is sold out of lots, unaware of its expansion. But there’s still enough land left for at least 60 years’ worth of sales, based on the attrition rate, and Ambrus estimated there’s room for upward of 7,000 more burials. Perhaps more as cremations increase.
Glenwood has a healthy endowment, but its operations are funded through lot sales, which range from $8,500 to $50,000, and related services.
Customers pay an opening and closing fee for each burial, which includes graveside accommodations, tents, chairs and traffic control. Glenwood also has a small construction team that can build out custom lots. Then there are fees for “special care.”
“Some people want to have their lot tended to every week and are willing to pay extra to do that,” Ambrus said.
It takes about $2 million to maintain the property each year, or more depending on maintenance. The grounds are lush. There are at least 5,000 trees and all manner of vegetation.
Whenever an apartment complex or multistory building goes up around Glenwood’s perimeter, Ambrus devises a plan to prevent encroachment.
“When we come in and develop a new area we’ll heavily landscape it to block out whatever might be around it, to make it secluded,” he said. “And that comes back in the form of lot prices.”
The nonprofit appears in good shape financially.
About 30% of sales go into Glenwood’s endowment. The Glenwood Cemetery Historical Preservation Foundation has a combined endowment and operating budget of around $30 million. With future lot sales, the endowment is likely to be in excess of $100 million in 60 years, providing enough money to fund operations through interest income.
Over the years, Glenwood has become a tourist destination. Houstonians take out-of-town guests to stroll the narrow, winding roads and visit the roughly 120-year-old Oak tree known as “Cemetery Oak.” Residents who live nearby come in on their bikes, pushing baby strollers or walking their dogs. About 500 people visit the cemetery on any given week.
Jim Parsons, programs director for Preservation Houston, conducts four public tours of Glenwood every year, plus another 20 or so private tours to women’s groups, garden clubs, church groups and others.
Among the most common questions Parsons hears are, “How many people are buried in Glenwood?” (more than 24,000) and “Where is Howard Hughes’ grave?” When Parsons shows them the modest site, they often respond with, “This is it?”
“I think they expect the Hughes name in eight-foot-tall neon letters,” he said, “but it’s really understated.”
Hughes is buried next to his parents, the graves behind a fence and identified by ground markers so they are easy to miss. A series of decorative elements resembling urns are attached to a curved wall behind the graves. William Ward Watkin, the dean of the architecture school at Rice, also buried at Glenwood, designed the plot.
“Watkin said they could be Gabriel’s trumpet, but they were actually based on Howard Hughes Sr.’s watch fob, which looked like a saxophone,” Parsons said.
Some of the larger plots at Glenwood, ones with historic statuary and elaborate landscaping, feel like miniature parks. As with architecture, the designs reflect the times. Some monuments are Victorian with carved statues and balustrades. Others have a simpler, midcentury style.
Visitors are often surprised at Glenwood’s size and the way the terrain rolls, a rare image in pancake-flat Houston. The names on the monuments also elicit memories and conversation.
“That’s part of why it’s so much fun to do the tours, because you see these names you recognize from buildings or streets or neighborhoods, but you don’t know the stories behind them,” Parsons said.
“This is such a great one-stop shop for Houston history because so many people who made it happen are here. Not to mention it being a beautiful place.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com