A Sense Of Place: The Columbarium

Originally posted on Urban Fantasy Investigations (October 30, 2015)

The stern neoclassical building looked distinctly out of place in the pastel-hued residential neighborhood.

It sat in all its somber glory at the end of a small cul-de-sac, surrounded by neatly-trimmed hedges and small, geometric patches of grass. Purple-leaved trees shaded a small parking area just inside the wrought-iron gate.

Georgia eased Dolores into an open space, and turned off the engine. The Valk’s final throaty rumble echoed off the surrounding houses. She dismounted, carefully rearranged her skirt and tugged off her helmet. She cast a quick eye around the neighborhood, then laid it on the seat. “All right. We’re here.”

Darius dismounted, too. She could feel his suspicion growing as they walked up the sidewalk to the building’s pillared entrance. Georgia glanced at his face. His forehead tightened with each step they took. The line of his mouth drew steadily thinner.

His senses had to be on high alert by now, even if he still didn’t realize where they were. Georgia cleared her throat. “How do you feel?”

The glare he gave her confirmed her suspicions. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what this is about.”

“You’ll see.” If she told him her plan now, she’d never get him inside.

They came to the doors. Darius reached out to open one for her. Georgia beat him to it. She ignored his disgruntled expression and motioned him inside. Darius gave her a hard look, then stepped over the threshold.

Georgia scarcely had time to join him before he doubled over.

She caught him and helped him to the wall. He sagged against it, pinched the bridge of his nose so hard his fingertips turned white. “What the fuck is this place?”

“It’s called The Columbarium.” Her fingers were still curled around his arm. Georgia forced them to unclench, and stepped back. “San Franciscans have been interring the ashes of their loves ones here for over one hundred years.”

Darius dropped his hand and gave her an incredulous glare. “Are you serious right now? You brought me to a goddamn charnel house?” He shook his head, winced. “Where do you take guys on the second date, the city morgue?”

Georgia tipped up her nose. “Don’t be silly. Morgue is the third date.” She took in the look on his face, and sighed. “Look, if we’re going to work together, we can’t have a repeat of the other day. I need to know you’re not going to lose your shit if there are spirits around.”

Season Of The Witch (Shades Below, #1.5)

My Notes

One of my favorite things about San Francisco is that just about anywhere you go, there exists the possibility you’ll stumble across something fantastic.

The Neptune Society Columbarium is something fantastic.

Turn down a nearly invisible little street in The Richmond District, and you’ll find yourself in a comfortable, tree-lined residential cul-de-sac.  At the end of the cul-de-sac is a set of heavy, wrought-iron gates, behind which lie a building wholly out-of-step with the rest of the neighborhood: The Building That Time Forgot.

The Columbarium was built in 1898 by cartographer and architect Bernard J.S. Cahill, in the ornate neoclassical style that was all the rage in San Francisco at the time. Originally part of the 167-acre Odd Fellows Cemetery, it is the oldest of the five columbaria that currently exist in the City of San Francisco. It’s also the only one that is nondenominational.

San Francisco has a somewhat wonky history when it comes to the care and keeping of its dead. In the early 1900s, real estate demand prodded the city to ban further burials within city limits. In the 1930s, it did away with all its cemeteries entirely, and evicted the vast majority of its graves to the nearby city of Colma (which is now known far and wide as “The City of the Dead”).

The Odd Fellows cemetery surrounding the Columbarium was exhumed, its residents shuttled off to Colma. Many of the headstones were used to build a seawall at Aquatic Park (not kidding), and while the Columbarium building itself survived, it fell into severe disrepair.

Forgotten by most, it was allegedly used by bootleggers during Prohibition. From approximately 1934-1979, it was looted and vandalized repeatedly. Even so, when The Neptune Society of Northern California finally took stewardship in 1980, they discovered to their astonishment that many of the niches still contained the ashes and effects of their original occupants.

You can still see these niches. Today, the Columbarium is fully restored and open to the public, and let me tell you, it is glorious. Step inside, and its unique combination of baroque and neoclassical features is on prominent display. The building doesn’t look particularly large from the outside, but inside, its impeccable design makes the entire space expand. Soaring balconies ring a light-filled atrium, capped with a stained-glass dome you have to see to believe.

The ground floor rooms are named for each of the mythological winds of classical mythology, and six of those rooms feature gorgeous stained glass windows. There are four stories total of passageways, each lined with niches that chronicle the history of San Francisco back to the 1890s.

The Columbarium contains more than 8,000 inurnment spaces altogether. People are still being interred here, proof that in a city like San Francisco, history never truly dies.

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