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It all began in 1836, when architect John Notman (1810–1865) laid out a series of meandering walkways and terraces on the east bank of the Schuylkill River above Fairmount Park. With his design for Laurel Hill Cemetery, the twenty-six-year-old native of Scotland created the first architecturally designed cemetery in the country. He also established the nation’s second garden-type cemetery, preceded by Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded only five years earlier, in 1831. The U.S. Department of the Interior designated Mount Auburn Cemetery a National Historic Landmark in 2003, five years after Laurel Hill Cemetery joined the distinguished roster, in 1998. Of the nation’s twenty-five hundred properties designated as National Historic Landmarks, the Keystone State claims 157.

Before the founding of Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphians had buried their loved ones in churchyards or in small family plots. Center-city alone claimed more than seventy of these burial grounds. The city was rapidly expanding and by the 1830s, these sites were filling and becoming overcrowded. Philadelphia’s graveyards had grown intolerable, unsightly, foul-smelling and, as many believed, hazardous to one’s health and well-being. The stench alone was appalling.

To Philadelphians who had become wary of these burial places, Laurel Hill Cemetery Company’s organizer John Jay Smith (1798–1881) offered an alternative: the picturesque rural cemetery. Historical accounts contend that Smith had become distressed over the unsatisfactory burial of a young daughter on the watery grounds of the Arch Street Friends Meeting House at Fourth and Arch Streets, where many victims of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic had been buried. “Philadelphia should have a rural cemetery on dry ground,” he insisted, “where feelings should not be harrowed by viewing thebodies of beloved relatives plunged into mud and water.”

On November 14, 1835, Smith invited several individuals to meet at his office to discuss the organization of a cemetery company. The company purchased the first tract of thirty-two acres in February 1836 for fifteen thousand dollars. City residents knew the property as the former countryseat of Joseph Simms, who lost it through bankruptcy in 1824. Until the cemetery purchased the property – variously described as The Laurels, Laurel Hill, or simply Laurel – it was used as a farmstead, a tavern, and a boarding school. Architect William Strickland attended the meeting, accompanied by Joseph Struthers, a marble mason, who would later carve some of Laurel Hill’s most ornate monuments. The organizers envisioned the new burial ground to be “a Rural Cemetery calculated to be convenient and ornamental within a reasonable distance of Philadelphia.” Laurel Hill’s founders made an important distinction, though. They considered Mount Auburn a “wooded” cemetery and planned Laurel Hill as a “garden” cemetery.

The state legislature approved the company’s incorporation during the session of 1836–1837, signed into law by Governor Joseph Ritner (1780–1869) on February 9, 1837. “Whereas, the practice of burying in populous cities is becoming more objectionable,” the act proposed, “and more burdensome and expensive to the community, by whereof it is thought expedient to make some other provision for the decent respect which is due the dead, free from the inconveniences above mentioned.” Incorporators included Benjamin W. Richards, Frederick Brown, William M. Meredith, Edward Coleman, George N. Baker, Henry Toland, Nicholas Biddle, Nathan Dunn, and Smith. Richards, Brown, Dunn, and Smith were appointed managers of the company. Upon Dunn’s death, Lloyd P. Smith assumed his post, and Richards was succeeded by his son of the same name.

Librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia and a passionate, albeit amateur, horticulturist, Smith selected the Simms property, located nearly four miles north of the city, because of its “many and remarkable beauties,” and “rocks, which are piled in picturesque confusion,” in addition to “a variety of indigenous and foreign trees, of the most rare and beautiful species.” The property would eventually include even more plantings, as well as magnificent monuments and memorials, and spectacular views of the Schuylkill River. He engaged Notman, who designed the cemetery’s first section, as well as the entrance gate, and several major monuments. Both men envisioned the cemetery as a serene, bucolic park-like setting in which visitors could leisurely stroll and savor the beauty and bounty of nature. Smith and Notman created what ultimately became one of Philadelphia’s – and Pennsylvania’s – first great public landscapes. Smith oversaw the planting of eight hundred trees and shrubs not long after the company acquired the property. “Education & entertainment were a part of [my] initial vision to make Laurel Hill a place that is desirable as well as valuable,” he wrote in his diary.

Smith’s Guide to Laurel Hill Cemetery, near Philadelphia, with a List of Lotholders, published in 1857 – and available “For Sale at the Cemetery” – extolled the beauty of the spot, eloquently described the more important burials and monuments, and also provided an account of its origins and early history. The first burial took place on July 19, 1836, when “Mercy Carlisle, a Friend, aged sixty-seven, wife of Abraham Carlisle,” was laid to rest in a lot owned by her son-in-law Joseph Cowperthwaite. “She had visited the grounds a few weeks previously,” Smith recounted, “and then in feeble health, expressed her decided wish to be interred under the group of four large pine trees, now enclosed by granite and iron railing, near the centre of the plot.” Guide to Laurel Hill Cemetery also includes an extensive list of flowers, shrubs, and trees on the grounds, as well as recommendations of plantings for lot owners; instructions on the proper way to visit the cemetery; and a directory of owners and the locations of their plots. (The State Library of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, owns a copy of Guide to Laurel Hill Cemetery inscribed by John Jay Smith and dated September 14, 1863.)

Laurel Hill Cemetery, a forerunner of the planned urban garden, helped spawn in the mid-nineteenth century the creation of Fairmount Park, the forty-two-hundred-acre oasis (with more than two hundred miles of scenic and recreational trails) for which Philadelphia is justly famous; it is the largest landscaped urban park in the United States. The cemetery emerged as an unusual, unprecedented public space for sculpture and became the site of social gatherings, a rural retreat for city residents, and a quiet place for solace, reflection, rumination, and the appreciation of statuary and monuments. The cemetery grew so popular with Philadelphians and visitors that its management banned picnickers in 1844 and four years later required sightseers to obtain prior approval before visiting. The cemetery ultimately became a victim of its own success. The company prohibited carriages on the grounds unless the driver or passenger owned a lot. For years, managers discouraged unmarried individuals from purchasing lots so that Laurel hill would remain a family cemetery. Landscape architect and arbiter of taste Andrew Jackson Downing reported that near thirty thousand individuals visited Laurel Hill between April and December 1848. Wildly escalating visitation compelled the company to issue admission tickets to control the flow of crowds. In 1861 alone, the cemetery’s management counted more than 140,000 visitors.

Nineteenth-century Americans shared a more casual, open attitude toward death than society does today. They accepted death as part of daily life. Infant mortality rates were high. Life spans were shorter. Antibiotics were nonexistent. Epidemics were catastrophic. The death of the elderly and the infirm more often than not occurred at home. “Death was much more commonplace during the nineteenth century, and Americans of that period had a number of mourning rituals and traditions,” says Ross L. Mitchell, Laurel Hill Cemetery’s first-ever executive director. “Some of these rituals were quite elaborate. Social traditions and etiquette dictated the wearing of black by widows. The length of the mourning period and seclusion was also proscribed. It was a much different time, and Laurel Hill Cemetery is part of that tradition.”

Mitchell is quick to point out that many of the earliest burials at Laurel Hill were actually re-interrments. Families who saw their farms and properties sold and divided for development moved their ancestors from family burial plots to lots at the cemetery. Cemetery promoters were not quite sure how the public would react to the large-scale public burial space. They gave Laurel Hill prestige and popularity by obtaining the remains of important Americans, among them Revolutionary War era figures, such as Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, Thomas McKean, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Hugh Mercer, hero of the Battle of Princeton. The ploy worked, and Laurel Hill became the final destination for many.

As Laurel Hill prospered and grew, cemetery officials expanded Notman’s original 1836 design to extend the grounds south of Hunting Park Avenue in 1849. Six years later, the company purchased an additional ten acres at the cemetery’s northern boundary. This 1855 acquisition created a cemetery in two sections, with the center area occupied by Fairy Hill, the estate of George Pepper. The cemetery purchased Fairy Hill in 1861, bringing the tract to its present ninety-five acres.

“A visit to Laurel Hill Cemetery today is not only a reminder of days long gone by, but it also offers a tour of a bonafide public sculpture garden,” Mitchell says. Grand monuments, handsome mausoleums, and elegant obelisks punctuate the rolling expanses of velvety green turf. Mitchell aptly describes it as “an outdoor museum of American culture.”

Notman’s classical gatehouse, in a Roman Doric style, gives visitors their first impression of Laurel Hill Cemetery. Passing through its central arched entrance, visitors ascend nine steps to Old Mortality by Scottish sculptor James Thom (1802–1850), whose work earned him accolades as “the Burns of Sculpture” by his contemporaries. Installed in 1836, the sculpture depicts the encounter of the fictitious narrator and an aged peasant, Robert Paterson, nicknamed “Old Mortality,” from Scott’s novel, The Tale of Old Mortality, published in 1816. Paterson had become well-known in the eighteenth century for traveling through Scotland’s Highlands and recutting the names of the martyred 1697 Covenanters (individuals who wanted to reestablish Presbyterianism in Scotland) on headstones in old churchyard cemeteries. The grouping, originally containing a bust of the sculptor (that has since been beheaded), reminded visitors that not only were they embarking on a similar mission of memory, but it also assured them they had stepped into a cultured and civilized environment.

In addition to Thom’s masterpiece, the cemetery contains works by Alexander Milne Calder (1846–1923) and his son Alexander Stirling Calder (1870– 1945). The first of the famous Calder family of sculptors created a tomb, in 1889, for William Warner, who amassed a fortune in the coal business and bequeathed a great deal of it to charitable causes. The sculpture offers very little about Warner’s life and good deeds; instead, it conveys religious symbolism: a draped female form opens Warner’s granite sarcophagus to allow the soul – portrayed by the artist as a face and wings – to escape in the midst of a swirling cloud.

Alexander Stirling Calder sculpted a bronze figure of Clio, the muse of history, for the tomb of Henry Charles Lea (1825–1909), a well-respected historian and political activist. A granite backdrop rising more than seven feet behind the seated figure forms part of a retaining wall on a hillside above Kelly Drive. The granite structure was designed by C. C. Zantzinger and C. Louis Borie Jr., who later collaborated on the Fidelity Mutual Building and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Throughout his long career, the younger Calder contributed enormously to Philadelphia’s public art.

In addition to works by talented artists and architects, Laurel Hill Cemetery is the final resting place of not only prominent Philadelphians but also well known Americans. The cemetery’s Millionaires’ Row is an avenue lined with elaborate memorials to the magnates who dominated Philadelphia following the Civil War, the individuals whom biographical annals of the period described as the “titans of commerce and the captains of industry.” Among business leaders interred in Millionaires’ Row are Matthias Baldwin (1795–1866), owner of the Baldwin Locomotive Works; Henry A. Berwind (1859–1932), coal baron and socialite; Henry Disston (1819–1878), owner of the world’s largest saw manufactory; William Elkins (1832–1903), who made fortunes in oil and street railways; and George W. Childs (1829–1894), a publisher of Victorian period bestsellers who, in 1864, purchased the Public Ledger, building it into Philadelphia’s leading newspaper. Construction of Disston’s mausoleum – the cemetery’s largest – in 1880 cost $68,000, the equivalent of more than $1,347,000 today.

“’Millionaires’ Row’ proves that even in death there was social stratification,” says Ross Mitchell. “Millionaires’ Row is a ‘Who’s Who’ of Philadelphians whose background, power, social standing, money, and political prowess accorded them great houses in both life and death. The cemetery’s mausoleums are extravagant and opulent.” The National Park Service succinctly describes Laurel Hill as “the afterlife address of choice” for the city’s elite.

Mitchell says that many of the names were or have become household words to generations of residents.

Graves of prominent city residents include those of Conrad Clothier (1829–1886), founder of one of Philadelphia’s most famous department stores; P.A.B. Widener (1834–1915), developer of the city’s trolley system; Louis Antoine Godey (1804–1878), publisher of the country’s first great magazine for women, Godey’s Lady’s Book; Frank Furness (1839–1912), architect known for his innovative and daring designs; William Trost Richards (1833–1905), a preeminent marine artist; David Rittenhouse (1732–1796), astronomer, first director of the United States Mint, and one of the earliest re-interrments; General George Gordon Meade (1815– 1872), victorious commander of the Union Army at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg; Elisha Kent Kane (1820–1857), intrepid Arctic explorer; Frederick Graff (1775–1849), engineer of the Fairmount Water Works; Louisa Knapp Curtis (1852– 1910), editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal; Thomas Sully (1783–1872), portrait painter; and Mary Ann Lee (1824–1899), America’s first ballerina.

The roll wouldn’t be truly complete unless it included John Notman who, after laying out Laurel Hill Cemetery, provided designs for the Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. He also designed the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, and Holy Trinity Church, extant city landmarks, and the Church of the Ascension, Bank of North America, and Episcopal Academy, which have been demolished. For cemetery manager Nathan Dunn, he designed a cottage inspired by the client’s travels in China in Mount Holly, New Jersey, and his Chinese Museum in London (see “Two Gentlemen of the China Trade” by Myra K. Jacobsohn, Fall 2006). Notman also designed Princeton University’s Nassau Hall.

In his 1875 Official Guide Book to Philadelphia: A New Handbook for Strangers and Citizens, Thompson Wescott made due note of the cemetery’s attractiveness to established Philadelphians. “It has been a favorite place for the interment of persons of wealth and taste, and their families in remembrance have seemed to outvie each other in the erection of chaste and costly monuments. Some of these memorials are very elaborate and designed in exquisite taste. The grounds are crowded with cenotaphs [monuments honoring deceased individuals whose remains are buried elsewhere] and funereal structures, so that the stranger may wander here for hours and continually meet with something new and interesting.” Continuing through the late nineteenth century, the cemetery proved to be a popular subject for both illustrations and narratives in a number of periodicals and travel books. Karl Baedeker’s The United States with an Excursion into Mexico: Handbook for Travellers, published in 1899, cited Laurel Hill as a leading destination for visitors to Philadelphia. Moses King didn’t restrain his description of “Philadelphia’s Pre-Eminent Necropolis” in Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians, published in 1902, characterizing it as “the peer of any American rural cemetery. All that vast wealth with an unlimited drawing on the greatest talent can do has been done here to make this a paradisiacal city of the cherished dead. Here are many miles of tombs, vaults, monuments, etc., that have cost incalculable millions, and here have been interred innumerable eminent men and women.”

Such praise couldn’t have pleased cemetery company officials more. Tourism, beginning during Smith’s tenure, was an extremely important component in marketing Laurel Hill to purchasers of plots. The campaign proved to be highly successful.

The early growth of Laurel Hill Cemetery was meteoric, increasing from twenty acres to ninety-five in its first twenty-five years and consuming three estates – Mount Laurel, the Rawle family’s Harleigh, and Fairy Hill – but like many Victorian era cemeteries, it fell on hard times in the twentieth century. Neglect, indifference, deferred maintenance, vandalism, and the ravages of time exacted their tolls. Thieves ransacked tombs and mausoleums for their costly works of art. From its inception, as individuals bought lots, a portion of the purchase price was escrowed, set aside in a permanent fund, for the maintenance of the grounds. The fund still exists, but it can be used only for upkeep of the cemetery as a whole. Ground swelling and settling, unstable monument foundations, weathering, and the sheer weight of enormous memorials and commodious mausoleums have all demanded intensive – and expensive – attention. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission partially funded the conservation of the cemetery’s elegant cast-iron entrance gates with a grant of nine thousand dollars in 2005.

Drayton M. Smith, a descendant of cemetery founder John Jay Smith, his wife Jane Snyder Smith, and John Francis Marion (1922–1991), Philadelphia historian and author, established the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1978 to protect and preserve the hallowed grounds. Marion served as the organization’s first president. The organization chose as one of its first priorities the restoration of Old Mortality, which Penny Balkin Bach, author of Public Art in Philadelphia, contends was erected by cemetery owners “in homage to the concept of renewal.” After the Smiths died in an automobile accident, a fund established in their memory enabled the cemetery company to tackle restoration of John Notman’s original Gothic structure sheltering Thom’s masterpiece.

Ross Mitchell, who possesses a background in arts management – he served as gallery director of the Barnes Foundation in Merion for seven years – melds his interests in art and historic preservation to make Laurel Hill Cemetery as popular a destination as it was during the nineteenth century. “Laurel Hill is a jewel in Philadelphia’s crown,” he says, “and it should be enjoyed by everyone living in or visiting the city. The U.S. Department of Interior gave us the greatest recognition when it designated Laurel Hill a National Historic landmark – the first cemetery in the country to be so recognized. This grand cemetery isn’t merely a burial place – it’s a celebration of art, a place of tranquility, and a chapter in American history that awaits one and all.”


Travel Tips

Once visited primarily by mourners, family members and descendants, genealogists and, for a time in the nineteenth century, picnickers, cemeteries now attract a new breed of aficionados who make pilgrimages to see works of art, burial sites of famous individuals, and landscape architecture. There’s even a name for such visitors who delight in these outdoor sculpture gardens: taphophile, meaning lover of tombstones and admirer of cemeteries.

Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery welcomes visitors for not only tours of its bucolic grounds, but also for special events throughout the year, such as the Gravedigger’s Ball, an annual black-tie affair every autumn, and a General George Gordon Meade Birthday Celebration each December, in addition to regularly scheduled thematic tours. Laurel Hill’s management invites visitors to tour, free of charge, the cemetery by themselves (many of whom may be surprised to learn it’s the final resting place of six passengers of the R.M.S. Titanic – three who perished in the 1912 sinking and three who survived and died later). To plan a visit or take advantage of special events, telephone (215) 228-8200 or visit the Laurel Hill Cemetery website.

Incorporated in 1844, Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery contains the graves of important American figures – Lillian Russell (1861–1922), America’s “Queen of Comic Opera,” Josh Gibson (1911–1947), Negro Leagues baseball star, and Stephen C. Foster (1826–1864), beloved composer of folk and minstrel music – but it also includes the graves of the city’s founding families and generations of business and civic leaders. Nestled in sloping lawns and beneath canopies of ancient trees lie the remains of 125,000 individuals. Allegheny is the nation’s sixth oldest rural cemetery, and impressive mausoleums and towering monuments, obelisks, and shafts in a myriad of architectural styles – Greek Revival, Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, and an unusual Egyptian Revival – punctuate its three hundred acres. Pittsburghers well know the Temple of Memories Mausoleum for its magnificent stained glass windows and for its art collection, which includes works by Cecilia Beaux and Jean-Baptist-Camille Corot. Like Laurel Hill, Allegheny Cemetery – entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 – conducts several popular events throughout the year. For more information, telephone (412) 682-1624 or visit the Allegheny Cemetery website.

Established the same year as Allegheny Cemetery, theHarrisburg Cemetery claims fame for holding the mortal remains of a number of political figures, such as powerbroker Simon Cameron, four governors, three United States senators, ten members of Congress, and a host of state and federal government officeholders. Named in 1985 to the National Register, the cemetery also contains the grave of sculptor George Grey Barnard (1863–1938), creator of the magnificent statuary flanking the main entrance to Pennsylvania’s State Capitol. To plan a visit or to learn about upcoming events, telephone (717) 234-8661.

Throughout Pennsylvania, historic cemeteries and burial grounds are open to the public and officials only ask that visitors observe all posted regulations.


For Further Reading

Arbeiter, Jean, and Linda D. Cirino. Permanent Addresses: A Guide to the Resting Places of Famous Americans. New York: M. Evans and Company, 1983.

Bach, Penny Balkin. Public Art in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Colvin, Howard. Architecture and the Afterlife. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Curl, James S. The Victorian Celebration of Death: The Architecture and Scenery of the 19th-Century Necropolis. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980.

Greiff, Constance M. John Notman, Architect, 1810–1865. Philadelphia: Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 1979.

Heller, Allan M. Philadelphia Area Cemeteries. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 2005.

Keels, Thomas H. Images of America: Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries. Portsmouth, N.H.: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.

Marion, John Francis. Famous and Curious Cemeteries. New York: Crown Publishers, 1977.

Meyer, Richard E., ed. Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.

Potter, Elisabeth Walton, and Beth M. Boland. Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1992.

Strangstad, Lynette. A Graveyard Preservation Primer. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1995.


James McClelland, a native of Philadelphia, is a frequent contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage. In 2004, he was named executive director emeritus of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, from which he had retired to devote more time to writing. His arts features, celebrity interviews, and profiles have appeared in numerous publications, including People on Parade, The Magazine Antiques, Ceramics Monthly, Dance International, and Art & Antiques. Author of Fountains of Philadelphia: A Guide, published by Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, in 2005, he is completing a guide to the arts in Philadelphia.