Walking into Forest Lawn Memorial-Park’s Gardens of Memory — a locked area of the cemetery not accessible to the public — brought tears to Elle Dawson’s eyes.
Dawson and her husband, Andrew, Burbank residents, have been coming to the cemetery for years, but have never been able to access the “secret garden” where Hollywood legends Mary Pickford and Humphrey Bogart are buried.
It was only through a tour hosted by Glendale Historical Society Saturday afternoon that the Dawsons were finally able to venture into the garden established in the early 1940s.
“It does have a different feel,” compared to the rest of Forest Lawn, said Andrew Dawson, surveying the understated garden’s low stone walls, marble statues and the cemetery’s characteristic flat grave markers.
Elle Dawson, sporting a black, Victorian-style parasol, described it as “breathtaking.”
The Secret Gardens of Forest Lawn tour also included a stop at the locked Garden of Honor, established in the 1950s, and the secluded Meditation Garden at Wee Kirk O’ the Heather Church, a reproduction of a 16th-century Scottish church where Anne Laurie is said to have worshiped.
Rick Leach, the cemetery’s gardening supervisor, prefaced the tour three days prior with a lecture about the gardens at the Glendale Downtown Central Library.
While the cemetery grounds are largely public, management segregated some areas in the mid-20th century to meet clients’ requests for enhanced privacy — and offered access to them at a higher price point, according to Peter Rusch, with the Glendale Historical Society.
Only select friends and family of individuals buried in the locked gardens have keys to open the imposing, bronze doors that separate them from the rest of the park.
It’s the fourth year the historical society has partnered with the cemetery to show history buffs and culture lovers a portion of the grounds they wouldn’t be able to see on their own, according to Don Snyder of the historical society.
According to Snyder, the cemetery is Glendale’s oldest major historical resource.
“And it’s so beautiful,” he said. “This has always been a very special place to me.”
During the tour, Leach was on hand to show tour-goers, broken into three groups, the grounds of Wee Kirk.
There have been some changes about the way the 112-year-old cemetery operates over the years, and not all of them for the better, Leach said.
“People don’t behave as well as they used to,” Leach said, pointing out that cemetery officials have installed security cameras — some of which he doesn’t find aesthetically pleasing — in response to vandalism.
Currently, he’s working with the cemetery’s architects and engineers to redesign an obstructive pole, with a camera on top, to better match the antiquated church that’s adjacent.
Several tour guides reiterated that cemetery founder Hubert Eaton, who referred to himself as “The Builder,” developed the novel concept of a memorial park — making the cemetery as much for people above ground as for those below.
To make Forest Lawn a place for joy, as well as sorrow, Eaton emphasized the “idea of memory, memories that are positive, about certain rites of passage, and the idea of a continuation of life through memory,” according to Clare Kunny, director of Art Muse LA. Kunny, and several other members of Art Muse LA, served as docents on the tour.
Last year, the historical society focused its annual tour on the cemetery’s extensive stained-glass archives, visiting the onsite workshop where pieces are repaired and renovated. A piece that hadn’t been viewed since the late 1800s was brought out and placed under a window to let light filter through it for the first time in centuries, Snyder said.
There are already plans to explore Forest Lawn’s statuary next year, Snyder said. It will include a visit to the statue repair shop, another place blocked from public view.