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History Of Laurel Hill Cemetery


Laurel Hill Cemetery


Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, PA


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Laurel Hill is a remarkable institution whose significance has been recognized in its designation as a National Historic Landmark. Laurel Hill Cemetery was envisioned by its founders as "a Rural Cemetery calculated to be convenient and ornamental within a reasonable distance of Philadelphia."

Key concepts were that it was to be situated in a picturesque location well outside the city; that it had no religious affiliation; and that it provide permanent burial space for the dead in a restful and tranquil setting. There were precedents for such a cemetery, most notably Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but Laurel Hill incorporated new ideas as well. One of the distinctions made by Laurel Hill's founders was that Mount Auburn was a "wooded" cemetery while Laurel Hill was a "garden" cemetery.

Selecting an appropriate site was one of the first challenges facing the cemetery's founders. Several options fell through before a group of proprietors, led by John Jay Smith, were able to purchase a former estate known as Laurel Hill in 1836. From 1797 to 1824, the 32-acre property located north of the city overlooking the Schuylkill River had been the county seat of merchant Joseph Simms. Following the Simms's bankruptcy, the estate was used as a farm, a tavern and a boarding school. The picturesque qualities of the site were an important aspect of its appeal, as was the gentility implied by its former use.

Selection Of Designer And Design

An informal competition was held to select a designer for Laurel Hill. Proposals were submitted by William Strickland and Thomas U. Walter, but ultimately architect John Notman was selected. Notman conceived the cemetery as an estate garden, based in part on English ideas of designed landscapes as transitions between art and nature. The design of Laurel Hill was also inspired in part by Kensal Green Cemetery, established in 1832 near London.

Key features of Notman's design for Laurel Hill were a three-tiered circulation system with the main carriage loop, secondary roads, and paths all converging near the center. The main landscape feature was the Shrubbery, a geometrically divided planting bed, with a secondary focus on the Sims mansion, which Notman also incorporated into his design, along with the existing greenhouse, carriage house and stables. Notman added a Doric Roman gatehouse, a superintendent's house and a chapel. Since the idea of a rural cemetery was new to Philadelphians, it was important that the new institution present a secure and positive image to visitors. This was achieved in part by building a stone wall along Ridge Avenue and fencing the north south sides.

After the initial conceptual plan by Notman, surveyor Philip Price was responsible for laying out the roads and burial lots at North Laurel Hill, beginning in the central section enclosed by the main carriage loop. Due to the curvilinear circulation system, the early lots were irregular and were sold by the square foot. By 1838 the cemetery had sold over half of the 800 lots Price had laid out. Notman's original intent was to keep the Shrubbery free from burial but as it was so desirable, it was one of the first areas where lots were sold.

Tourism At Laurel Hill Cemetery

Tourism was part of Laurel Hill's marketing strategy from the beginning. John Jay Smith recognized the close alignment of education with entertainment, which would make the cemetery desirable as well as valuable. Managers issued written regulations for visitors and lot-holders, which were revised and reprinted throughout the nineteenth century. Limits to general public use were imposed, with only lot-holders originally permitted to drive carriages onto the grounds.

Interest became so great and tourist flow increased to such a degree that the cemetery's policies were modified over time. Picnickers were banned in 1844, and in 1848 sight-seers had to obtain prior approval to visit. Despite these attempts to moderate visitation, Andrew Jackson Downing reported that "nearly 30,000 persons…entered the gates between April and December 1848."

Once one of Philadelphia's most popular tourist attractions, Laurel Hill's National Historic Landmark designation reaffirms its importance as an outdoor art museum, arboretum, cultural center, and broad-based learning resource.



Laurel Hill Cemetery
3822 Ridge Avenue
Philadelphia, PA

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