A new architectural gem for Lakewood

EAST CALHOUN — Architect Joan Soranno describes the design of Lakewood Cemetery’s new mausoleum with a single word: radical. It’s an odd descriptor for such a serene, stately setting — but it is accurate. 

That’s because the building, which Soranno conceived with design partner John Cook, represents a dramatic diversion from the style of architecture typically found at a cemetery. 

Instead of a straight-edged, stone-centric space, the split-level mausoleum features several hues of Italian marble. Gaping windows and sunroofs flood the 24,000-square-foot space with light while offering views of surrounding monuments. Understated furniture, mahogany, and grey Cold Spring granite provide contrast. 

There is a reception room, kitchen and quiet spaces for families to gather, providing the rare ability to host gatherings such as a visitation within the mausoleum itself. 

Outside, the building is fronted with an intricate mosaic made of glass tile from Mexico. Around two-thirds of the space is tucked into the hillside, preserving the area’s natural aesthetic by hiding much of the space from street level. 

The area around the building has meanwhile been re-landscaped to include new trees, a carefully manicured lawn and a zero-edge pool that reflects the cemetery’s architecture and monuments. 

Combined, the elements create a one-of-a-kind environment that is unmatched nationally, said Soranno, a design principal at Minneapolis-based HGA Architects. 

“You won’t find anything like this anywhere else in the country,” she said during a recent visit to the mausoleum. “It is highly unusual to have such a significant piece of architecture in a cemetery.”

The mausoleum was completed in mid-January, and has already been put into use. 

But its public debut will be held on Memorial Day weekend, when Lakewood leaders will host a series of tours and events to celebrate it and other architecture at the 250-acre cemetery, which sits just east of Lake Calhoun at the end of Hennepin Avenue. 

Already, though, the building is generating a fair amount of interest, not just from residents looking for a final resting space, but from design watchers around the world. 

Lakewood’s president, Ron Gjerde, said the chief objective was to create a space that blended with the landscape. But he and other Lakewood leaders also recognized a unique opportunity to do something different. 

Soranno and Cook’s idea for the building clearly fit that vision, he said. 

“We wanted to do something outside the box, and this was just such a fresh new look,” Gjerde said. “It didn’t compare to anything I was familiar with.”

Now that it has been built, Gjerde said he expects the mausoleum to be talked about in the same class as other storied Minneapolis structures such as the Walker Art Center, the Guthrie Theater and the Weisman Art Museum. 

He believes it will also draw more visitors to the cemetery, which already sees around 5,000 guests a year. 

Soranno, selected after a national search that included dozens of firms, said her primary goal was to meet the expectations and desires of Lakewood leaders. But she acknowledged that she invested more in the project than any other she has ever worked on. 

Part of the motivation came from the fact that she lives nearby, and has always admired the architecture found at Lakewood. 

The iconic nature of the cemetery’s other structures, including the 1910 Memorial Chapel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the 1965 Community Memorial Mausoleum, set a particularly high bar, Soranno said. 

“There was a lot of pressure on us to live up the highest standard of architecture,” she said. 

But there was some personal motivation as well: Soranno said she plans to use the space after her passing and, “for an architect to have the chance to design their final resting place is really quite extraordinary,” she said. 

For Lakewood, the building marks another chapter in the cemetery’s 141-year history. 

With the 1965 mausoleum at 85 percent capacity, and cremations rising in popularity, Gjerde said the new building was needed to house a new generation of deceased residents. Planning for the $30 million building started around three years ago. 

The mausoleum adds space for around 10,000 more people — a mix of indoor and outdoor crypts and columbariums, which hold cremated remains. It also has a memorial wall that can be used to recognize those whose remains are elsewhere. 

Gjerde said he expects the new mausoleum to be full in around 50 years. And while it will likely be up to future leaders to decide what to do after that, there is a strong possibility that the design of the new mausoleum will serve as a template for another future building. 

The cemetery has another space available for development just south of the site that could be used to mirror the design.  

Gjerde said he hopes the new mausoleum’s impact will go beyond the cemetery borders, however, opening the door to more innovative architecture that makes cemeteries more inviting and interesting places. 

“I hope it will open people’s eyes to say, ‘We can do something unique and different,’” 

he said. 

(Note: This story has been revised to correct the spelling of Joan Soranno’s name)