Not long ago, my friend Paul and I took a stroll through Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown.
In my post “Gardens, Formal and Less So,” I was thinking about parks, landscape architecture, and city planning, and Oak Hill fits in all those categories. “Park?” you may ask, and my answer would be yes. It was once known for Sunday carriage rides and picnics. In September of 1860, it was praised by The Evening Star, which called it “picturesque” and “a place where nature and art have combined to produce the most surprising effects.”
In the late 18th and early 19thcenturies, knowledge that improper burials could foul the water supply and cause other problems produced a movement to place cemeteries outside of town and make them pleasant places by adding elements of the garden to them.
The Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven and Mount Auburn in Boston were early examples of cemeteries established beyond the city limits, with landscaping, a caretaker, and a gatekeeper. Set up as non-profit organizations, the cemeteries put proceeds from plot purchases into maintenance—a new idea at the time.
Oak Hill was the brainchild of W.W. Corcoran, an international banker, art collector, and philanthropist. He wanted to donate something to his native Georgetown and the need for a cemetery was apparent to him. He bought 12 acres of land at what was then the edge of Georgetown and deeded it to the Oak Hill Cemetery Association in 1849. Several later land purchases expanded the cemetery’s acreage. Now it is bounded on the south by R street, on the West by Montrose Park, on the East by 28th Street and the Evermay estate, and on the north by Rock Creek.
At the time, Washington was teeming with some of the 19th century’s best minds in city planning, landscaping, and architecture. Corcoran, who was on the Board of the Smithsonian, whose red sandstone headquarters had recently been built by James Renwick, undoubtedly drafted some of them into his project.
George Francis de la Roche, a civil engineer who had worked on the Old Naval Observatory, was the chief engineer and architect at Oak Hill. The gatehouse to the cemetery, a miniature Italianate villa with a gothic look, is attributed to him. Some historians think it shows the influence of Andrew Jackson Downing, who was planning landscapes for the Mall at the time.
Mr. de la Roche also designed Oak Hill’s terracing, with blind walls that ensured stability and a storm sewer system to protect against erosion.
One of the first things a visitor to Oak Hill notices is the chapel. Renwick designed it in 1850. It is the only example of one of his gothic revival churches in the Washington area. Renwick also designed the gates at the main entrance to the cemetery. Originally meant for the Smithsonian, a work stoppage sent them to Oak Hill.
A walk through Oak Hill reveals grave markers for confederate spies, monuments to early area families such as Van Ness, Corcoran, Beall, and Mackall, modest markers for families such as the Peter’s of Tudor Place, and the Carroll mausoleum where Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie was interred until taken back to Springfield Illinois.
In a few square yards on the south side of the chapel, you can also see names from the 20thcentury: Graham (the Washington Post), Acheson (Secretary of State), and Bruce (diplomacy).
Oak Hill has some outstanding pieces of funerary art as well. One of the more notable of these, Amor Caritas by Augustus Saint Gaudens, was stolen in 1986 after a biography of the artist was published.
It was later recovered and the cemetery was able to install a replica on the Willard memorial from which it was taken. The original is in storage. Because of this incident, and because the cemetery does experience theft and vandalism, I won’t be pointing out anything someone could walk off with.
While the 21st century mind might not wax as eloquent about a cemetery as the Evening Star did in 1860, Oak Hill’s trees, terraces, and benches do provide quiet in the midst of urban bustle. I can’t imagine that people in the houses across R street view it as anything but an addition to the value of their real estate: quiet green space that won’t be developed, and if they’re fans of bird life, a ready habitat. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you want to have a walk in a cemetery, but if you like nature, art or history, it’s sure to please.