By Meghan Hall
Established in 1896, the Olivet Memorial Park is one of the oldest in Colma, Calif., and has been witness to the region’s evolution. When the Olivet Memorial Park was acquired by Pennsylvania-based funeral and cremation service provider Cypress Lawn in 2020, John Lum Architecture was hired to design the memorial par’s new funeral and cremation services building. A different opportunity for JLA, the redesigned building is meant to evoke a celebration of life and cater to the Bay Area’s diverse population.
“Sacred spaces are a vital part of our communities intended to serve us during times of need,” said Bret Walters, a principal at John Lum Architecture. “To create a peaceful, functional sanctuary that is an extension of Olivet’s principles, we took a human-centered approach rooted inclusivity, togetherness, and connectivity.”
Olivet—which has been renamed to Cypress Lawn—was established by Hamden Holmes Noble. The 65-acre property has a long history in the Bay Area and has been heralded as a “Cemetery of All Faiths.” JLA wanted to ensure that no matter the design aesthetic or layout, the revamped building would be welcoming to all different types of communities, maintaining its legacy.
“We needed to create a space that was non-denominational,” said John Lum. “We needed a space with a completely different feel.”
The project team wanted to help families honor their loved ones in a meaningful way and cater to a variety of different ceremonies and celebrations. Common to all though, Cypress Lawn and JLA wanted to confront the widespread conception of funeral homes and related facilities as emotionally suppressive or dreary places. The goal was to create filled with light and air that gives visitors an uplifting feeling.
“The funeral industry has changed from memorial parks to celebrations of life—that’s the most radical change,” explained Lum. “…[Cypress Lawn] definitely knew they did not want the morbid, heavy, draped, dark funeral home. That certainly is old fashioned, and that’s how most people [visualize] mortuaries.”
Overall, the building evokes a California-like, mid-century modern design, with a low, horizontal profile. The exterior of the building is composed of a mix of concrete pillars and wood-slated screens to create mixes of shadow and light. A glass entry is sheltered by a breezeway and helps to guide guests along a grass swept-façade. Copper-trimmed eaves have patinaed, are meant to be a reminder of spiritual transformations.
A shou sugi ban—an ancient Japanese exterior siding technique that preserves wood by charring it with fire— wall also acts as a feature of the space and as a symbol of preservation.
“The burnt wood does have a timeless and an appropriate somber feel, yet it is also an incredibly durable and weathered surface,” said Lum. “The contrast of the massive columns with the almost delicate wood. I really enjoy because it just has this textural difference.”
Inside the building is a 2,100 square foot multipurpose chapel. The chapel can accommodate up to 300 guests. The face is filled with windows, a key hallmark in the project’s design and an important factor in mitigating the traditional, darker feel of memorial homes. The windows overlook a zen-like garden, and help to bring the outside in.
“It’s one of the most unique features about this room; it does allow for this contemplative view that is really unusual for a celebration center,” noted Lum.
The floors are dressed in a terrazzo tile to keep with other buildings on the property, and the interior walls are painted with tranquil, soothing colors. The paint produces an ethereal, ombre effect, representative of almost being in the clouds, but without being entirely literal.
“We chose colors that one would not normally see in this setting,” said Lum. “… The mural represents a certain intrigue but isn’t overly distractive.”
The project was different for JLA, who typically specializes in a spectrum of residential and commercial development. According to Lum, product types like Cypress Lawn are addressed in academic settings, but rarely do firms have the opportunity to tackle memorial parks in a professional manner. Additionally, said Lum, there are only a handful of architecture firms who specialize in cemeteries and memorial parks. On the whole, JLA found the opportunity to be a unique opportunity to better immerse themselves in a different form of architecture and design.
“Death is part of our natural life cycle, and for me it was fascinating to get to understand and work in an industry I never thought I would be involved in, and understand it as a business,” said Lum. “That is the most shocking part—that it’s a business. But death is such a mystery, and [with this project] it was fascinating for me to learn.”