For sale: 101-year-old Greek Revival building in landmark area. Top-quality granite exterior, marble interior, high ceiling, custom-made window by famous artist. Immediate occupancy: vacant since the 1950s. Sleeps eight. Asking $750,000.
Standing on the threshold, Susan Olsen explained that the price did not include putting the buyer’s name above the stately bronze doors.
The current owner’s name, Peale — as in the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the longtime minister at the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan and author of best-sellers like “The Power of Positive Thinking” — had been covered up. Potential buyers become discouraged if they see someone else’s name up there, she said.
“Of course, if their name is something like Schwarzenegger” — with 14 letters — “it might not fit,” she said.
The property she was showing is a mausoleum, one of three on the market at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Ms. Olsen is Woodlawn’s staff historian.
In New York, where so much of daily life seems to revolve around real estate, it stands to reason that big-money prices and maxims like “location, location, location” figure in death as well. Mausoleums change hands just like two-bedroom co-ops or six-story walk-ups. And with cemeteries running short on space, cemetery officials have been known to call descendants who own long-empty gravesites or mausoleums, and suggest a sale.
At Woodlawn, which has more than 1,300 mausoleums, there is precedent for such turnover.
“Our most famous resale was J.C. Penney,” Ms. Olsen said. Penney, the department-store founder, died in 1971 at 95.
“He bought his from Mrs. William Randolph Hearst when she bought another used one,” she explained.
Woodlawn’s president and chief executive, John P. Toale Jr., interrupted. “Previously owned,” he corrected.
Ms. Olsen barely paused. She said that Mrs. Hearst, who was 92 when she died in 1974, had had “a small one for her parents, and moved them to the bigger one.” As for Hearst, who was 88 when he died in 1951, he was buried in Colma, Calif. He ended up being closer to his mistress than his widow. The mistress, Marion Davies, who died in 1961, was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Most of Woodlawn’s mausoleums are older than that. They are relics of a crypt-building boom in the Gilded Age. “The McMansions of the dead all got put up at Woodlawn,” Ms. Olsen said.
Over there is the one for the songwriter George M. Cohan. Others hold the publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the robber baron Jay Gould.
Yet another holds a recent arrival: Huguette Clark, the reclusive heiress who lived the last 30 of her 104 years in a hospital room.
There have been some departures among the departed. Leona M. Helmsley had the body of her husband, Harry B. Helmsley, transferred to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, 17 miles away in Westchester County. Then Mrs. Helmsley donated the mausoleum to the cemetery’s nonprofit foundation, which resold it, but not before she had removed the stained-glass window with the edited view of the Manhattan skyline. It showed only buildings her husband had controlled.
Another was the not-so-final resting place of a tin and railroad tycoon, William B. Leeds. In 2003, 95 years after Leeds’ death, the family moved his remains to his hometown, Richmond, Ind. That emptied the mausoleum, which was designed by John Russell Pope, the architect whose works include the National Gallery of Art and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. Woodlawn says the asking price is $4.2 million. Another, smaller mausoleum is on the market for $534,000.
On average, each mausoleum holds six bodies. Some have only one. Some, like the Peale mausoleum, have none. It has been empty for 55 years.
Ms. Olsen said the Peales were the second owners. It was built for Charles Henry Fowler, a Methodist bishop who died in 1908.
His body spent the next three and a half years in what is called a “receiving tomb,” a temporary resting place, while the mausoleum was being built. (Woodlawn officials say others have spent longer in their receiving tombs. The record is 26 years.)
In April 1956, Mr. Toale said, the Fowlers’ descendants had the bodies — by then the bishop’s widow and son had also been entombed there — moved to a cemetery in Paramus, N.J. Two months later, Mr. Toale said, “Dr. Norman Vincent Peale sees a bargain and buys the mausoleum.” Dr. Peale paid $15,000, according to records at the cemetery.
Ms. Olsen, the cemetery historian, said letters on file show that Dr. Peale had been corresponding with a monument builder since the late 1940s. “I would derive great comfort from the purchase of a mausoleum,” Dr. Peale wrote at one point. But he balked at a price quote of $18,000 for a new one at a cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y., saying it was “beyond my reach.”
At the time, Dr. Peale was in his 50s, an age, Woodlawn officials say, when many people make decisions about where they want to be buried. But Dr. Peale lived to be 95, so for nearly 40 years, the mausoleum “just sat there,” said his daughter, Margaret Everett.
By the time he died in 1993, the family’s focus had shifted to Pawling, N.Y., where Dr. Peale had lived in retirement. So Dr. Peale was buried there, as was his widow, Ruth, who died in 2008 at 101.
Mrs. Everett said she finally saw the mausoleum for the first time a couple of years ago, before she and her relatives decided to sell. “I didn’t realize what a spectacular place it was,” she said. “You don’t generally think, ‘I’m going to see a cemetery — gosh, that’s going to be fun,’ but it was really amazing.”