Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Spring 2019 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
On any given afternoon, The Woodlands in West Philadelphia is abuzz with activity. Hundreds of people, from picnickers, to dog walkers, students, and even amateur saxophonists, come to the 18th century estate-turned Victorian cemetery regularly. Even in the depths of winter, joggers lope along a dirt path at the perimeter, and walkers stroll among stone monuments and bare trees, taking in the cold, slanted evening light. In warmer weather, children play while parents lounge on blankets in the grass beside the headstones. In fall, more than 700 trees yield to a shock of color, drawing admirers from around the city. Pass an hour or two strolling through the 54 rolling acres and it will become clear: urban cemeteries are places for the living.
Such an apparent contradiction is actually rooted in historic precedent. “Rural” or “garden” cemeteries were initially developed in the mid-19th century in response to overcrowded and unsanitary churchyard burial grounds. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which opened in 1831, became the first model for repurposing verdant, rolling landscapes into commercial cemeteries. Philadelphia soon offered numerous variations, including Laurel Hill (1836), The Woodlands (1840), and Mount Moriah (1855). Over time, they’ve become isolated pockets of green within an ever-expanding city grid.
Predating the founding of the Fairmount Park Commission by a couple of decades, cemeteries first fulfilled the role of public parks, providing peaceful retreats away from the city’s bustle for tens of thousands of visitors annually. More recently, their recreational use has re-entered the mainstream, coinciding with both renewed interest in city living and appreciation for urban “green space.” But more than fortuitous alignment with current trends, the successful reinvention of The Woodlands and Laurel Hill resulted from vision and vigilance.
Forces of Entropy
From a preservation standpoint, ensuring a sustainable future for an historic cemetery takes considerable investment and planning. Historic cemeteries are inherently complex cultural landscapes. Many still operate as active cemeteries while also functioning as historic sites, arboreta, event venues, parks, and wildlife habitats. They may also contain important tree and plant collections, along with historic buildings, structures, and monuments. Each requires specific expertise for care and upkeep. Simple physical realities add to the challenge: old, weathered headstones sitting atop those soft, scenic hills are predisposed to the forces of entropy, a process often accelerated by certain ground-dwelling critters. “Settlement and the freeze-thaw cycle,” Nancy Goldenberg, president and CEO of Laurel Hill Cemetery notes, “topple headstones and make the resetting of stones a continuous maintenance process. With a collection of 33,000 headstones at Laurel Hill alone, our work is never done!”
According to Aaron Wunsch, assistant professor in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia’s unofficial cemetery aficionado, “while Philadelphia’s most scenic ‘rural’ cemeteries face a host of related challenges, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.” Wunsch, who has been involved in one capacity or another with The Woodlands, Laurel Hill, Mount Moriah, and the struggling Mount Vernon (see bottom of story), offers particularly acute insight in this arena. Staff creativity and commitment have been key to the success at The Woodlands and Laurel Hill, he points out. Mount Moriah and Mount Vernon, in contrast, staffed by volunteers and located in less affluent neighborhoods, must work with tighter resources. Preservation solutions in those cases may need to take different forms.
But Laurel Hill and The Woodlands also faced a number of daunting challenges during the latter half of the 20th century. The inability to expand their boundaries to accommodate new burials, dwindling lot sales, and insufficient “permanent funds” (meant to upkeep family lots in perpetuity) plagued both and nearly led to Laurel Hill’s abandonment. Structures crumbling from deferred maintenance, monuments vandalized, and sometimes stolen, and even roaming packs of wild dogs and deer left visitors leery.
Wandering among the pristine mausoleums of Laurel Hill today, visitors may feel like they’re exploring a sleepy, impeccably tidy miniature village. It’s hard to imagine the cemetery ever fell into such disarray. Strategically located four miles outside the city atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the Schuylkill River, Laurel Hill was Philadelphia’s first “rural” cemetery. A renewed interest in tourism and in the cemetery’s history, and its tourist-attracting potential, prompted the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery to form in 1978. Established to “preserve, protect, and promote the historical and visual character of the cemetery” the nonprofit group continues to fulfill that mission today.
When Jessica Baumert took over as executive director of The Woodlands in 2007, the first change she made was to tap the security staff at University City District and arrange for them to regularly open and close the cemetery gates. She then posted new signage to make it clear visitors were welcome. “[The Woodlands] was a place that most people were using for recreation or running without really being sure that they were doing it legally,” says Baumert. Then in 2011, The Woodlands began developing a multi-year master plan for the site, officially shifting focus to “engaging neighbors” and positioning The Woodlands as a “vibrant, community-based institution.” Through creative and accessible programming, they’ve been actively pursuing that goal ever since.
Both The Woodlands and Laurel Hill are listed as National Historic Landmarks, a designation that Wunsch helped secure in 1998 and 2006, respectively. Such high profile designation goes a long way towards raising a site’s profile and marketability. It can also open up opportunities for competitive grant funding that might cover more specialized preservation projects. It’s worth noting that most of the recent brick and mortar preservation at The Woodlands has focused on the 18th century history of the site, an historical layer that has turned out to be valuable in more ways than one.
Who Owns the Cemetery?
But what about sites like Mount Vernon and Mount Moriah, established later and catering to less wealthy clientele? As Wunsch puts it: What happens when history can’t do as much of the heavy lifting. If Mount Moriah’s recently published strategic plan is any indication, those apparent liabilities may ultimately provide some flexibility, prompting fresh ideas for new, creative management.
Part of the thrill of exploring Mount Moriah is navigating the dramatic topography as the meandering paths traverse meadows and woodlands. The massive cemetery, which spans both sides of Cobbs Creek, had been neglected for decades. When the cemetery company officially ceased operations in 2011, it left the 164-year-old and 142-acre site completely abandoned.
It was around that time that Paulette Rhone, now the president of Friends of Mount Moriah, got involved. At first, Rhone wanted to forestall the massive, deteriorating cemetery’s negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood’s safety and property values. But she also realized that the largest open space in Southwest Philadelphia presented an opportunity. Under Rhone’s leadership, along with the hard work of a dedicated core of volunteers overseeing two nonprofit groups, Mount Moriah has recently completed a strategic plan outlining the necessary next steps towards preservation.
The first step is to identify an institutional partner to take over ownership of the site. The issue of ownership has been complicated at Mount Moriah. While The Woodlands and Laurel Hill currently operate as nonprofit cemeteries, which provide the benefit of endowments and perpetual care funds that help cover the costs of basic maintenance and upkeep. At Mount Moriah, the cemetery company’s perpetual care funds were mismanaged by absentee owners, leaving the site with no remaining resources.
The Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation, the site’s current receiver, was founded in 2012 to help stabilize and preserve the stunning, but crumbling, Romanesque brownstone gatehouse as well as assist with other preservation and management operations. While the receivership gives the organization authority to continue preservation work and fundraising, the arrangement, notes Rhone, is not sustainable. Neither, she says, is the current reliance on an all-volunteer staff, who handle everything from site maintenance to patrolling the grounds. Many historic cemeteries split duties between nonprofits and the cemetery companies—with the nonprofit entities often funding programming operations and special preservation projects and the cemetery companies footing the bill for general maintenance and care of the grounds themselves. Without an active cemetery company, Mount Moriah will have to identify an appropriate long-term owner that can ensure ongoing maintenance and security.
Beyond the important logistics of ownership, staffing, and funding, the strategic plan’s overarching vision for Mount Moriah significantly redefines the role the cemetery plays in the Southwest Philadelphia community. Leaning into the landscape’s wild character, the plan envisions native planting schemes to reinforce the site’s role as a “nature sanctuary.” “Does a cemetery have to be mowed grass?” Rhone wonders. “Can it be more of a grassland? Meadow? Or a forested area?” Shifting public perception can be tricky, but since mowing costs tend to be astronomically high for cemeteries even a fraction of the size of Mount Moriah, (mowing alone eats up nearly $100,000 annually of The Woodlands’ perpetual care budget), “wilding” may very well be the best way to manage the vast site within the group’s limited funds.
Mount Moriah’s shift towards a less manicured landscape is not necessarily out of synch with history. “Historically, the idea of a lawn cemetery is not a 19th century thing. It’s a 20th century thing,” says Baumert. And it’s true: historic photographs of The Woodlands and Laurel Hill show lots enclosed with elaborate iron fencing and all manner of rosebushes, vines and tall grassy meadows planted throughout. Inspired by these images, Baumert has creatively integrated historic restoration at The Woodlands with increased community engagement through the Grave Gardeners program, an all-volunteer group that tends Victorian-style flower gardens in actual cemetery lots.
A Place for Living
Playing up its natural role as open green space helps link Mount Moriah with neighboring sites such as Bartram’s Garden and the Heinz Wildlife Refuge, setting the framework for strong regional partnerships. As cemeteries continue to reclaim their role as cultural institutions, all three sites enthusiastically take advantage of opportunities to tap into the multitude of organizations, museums, and universities that Philadelphia has to offer. Says Emma Max, program and operations manager at The Woodlands, “being tuned in, and working collaboratively with organizations and individuals in your community” is the best way to avoid working in a “silo.” Partnerships also have the added benefit of helping to stretch both capacity and capability of a lean staff and resources.
Sustainable models for historic cemeteries may take many forms, but consistent across the board is an understanding that cemeteries must serve as multifaceted stewards: of history, of people’s final resting places, and of valued community space. “I think the balance is making sure that a cemetery is treated as a burial ground for our ancestors and loved ones,” says Rhone, “but also understanding that it is a place for the living to enjoy.”
Mount Vernon Cemetery: How to Revive a Ruin
Mount Vernon Cemetery, established in 1856, sits just east of Laurel Hill across Ridge Avenue. In stark contrast to its neighbor, Mt. Vernon lies behind padlocked gates, its monuments engulfed in vines and its weathered gatehouse vulnerable to the elements. Technically Mount Vernon is still registered as a business corporation. However, the cemetery’s absentee owner has run the operation remotely for decades. Not a single lot has been sold since 1968.That may be about to change. According to Aaron Wunsch, who has been leading the cemetery’s revival, Mount Vernon is “poised to be taken over by a new, non-profit entity.” With proactive new management, he hopes that burials in existing family lots can finally resume and sees potential for creative programming along the lines of “experimental and perhaps temporary art installations.”
With no paid staff, the effort will need to garner volunteer support. But absent a strategic plan, Wunsch is quick to note, volunteer enthusiasm can lead to issues down the road. “You don’t want to clear large, overgrown areas, for instance, without knowing how you’ll maintain them or use them,” he says.
Developing a strategic plan similar to those of The Woodlands and Mount Moriah, he hopes, will be the first step in bringing Mount Vernon back to life.