Laurel Hill Cemetery


An idealized view of Laurel Hill Cemetery, issued by the New York firm Goupil, Vibert & Co. in 1848, looks west from Ford Road (Clearfield Avenue). At upper left, a funeral cortege with hearse and mourners’ carriages advances along Ridge Pike toward the cemetery. (Laurel Hill Cemetery Company)

Founded in 1836 as an alternative to the overcrowded churchyards of rapidly growing Philadelphia, Laurel Hill Cemetery was the first rural cemetery for the city and the second in the United States. With monuments designed by the era’s most prominent sculptors and architects, it served as elite Philadelphia’s preferred burial place for over a century. More than a cemetery, Laurel Hill became an outdoor art museum and tourist attraction and provided a prototype for Fairmount Park.

The idea for Laurel Hill originated in 1835, when John Jay Smith (1798-1881), a Quaker editor and horticulturist, joined forces with several other Philadelphians to establish a rural cemetery similar to those in Europe, like Père Lachaise outside Paris. Products of the period’s Romantic philosophy, rural cemeteries were meant to beautify death with picturesque landscapes filled with classical monuments and to replace unhygienic urban churchyards. The first rural cemetery in the United States, Mount Auburn, was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831.

Before the founding of Laurel Hill, most Philadelphians were buried in one of three places, depending on their social and economic status. Wealthy landowners could rest in private family plots at their country estates, like the Logan Burial Ground at Stenton. The poor, along with religious and racial minorities, were often banished to the Potter’s Fields that, starting in 1825, were reclaimed as Washington Square, Franklin Square, and Logan Square. While a few alternatives existed (such as workers’ association cemeteries or small private cemeteries like Ronaldson’s), most Philadelphians favored the burial grounds associated with their churches.

Between 1800 and 1830, the population of Philadelphia – then bounded by Vine and Cedar (South) Streets – grew 133%, from 81,000 to 189,000. By the 1830s, many urban churchyards were overcrowded, neglected, and under development pressure. At the Friends’ Burial Ground at Arch and Fourth Streets, in use since 1701, nearly 20,000 bodies were crammed into less than half a city block. John Jay Smith’s inability to locate his daughter’s grave there, after construction on the adjacent meeting house, was a major impetus in his decision to found Laurel Hill.

Elegantly dressed promenaders enjoy Laurel Hill’s elaborate monuments, its summer pavilion (at far right), and the view down the Schuylkill River to the city of Philadelphia. (Courtesy of James Hill Jr.)


Elevation Ideal for a Cemetery

In early 1836, Smith and his associates acquired Laurel Hill, a 32-acre estate on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, near the Falls of Schuylkill (later East Falls). Rising 100 feet above the river, Laurel Hill’s well-drained soil made it ideal for a cemetery. Its remote location, nearly four miles northwest of Vine Street (then Philadelphia’s northern boundary), seemed likely to remain bucolic indefinitely.

John Notman (1810-1865), a Scottish immigrant who later designed the Athenaeum and St. Mark’s Church, created the cemetery’s imposing Roman Doric gatehouse on Ridge Avenue. Laurel Hill’s ground plan, loosely based on Kensal Green outside London, is usually attributed to Notman, although some scholars have named local surveyor Philip M. Price as the designer. Burial lots were priced at $50 to $150, limiting interment to the city’s wealthier classes. The average lot size of 120 square feet allowed not only for burial of many more family members than a small urban churchyard lot but also for the erection of an imposing monument by Notman, William Strickland (1788-1854), or another noted architect.

Laurel Hill’s managers attempted to make the cemetery an American pantheon by relocating famous Revolutionary figures from their original burial sites. Among those reburied at Laurel Hill were Continental Congress Secretary Charles Thomson (1729-1824), taken from his wife’s Lower Merion estate, Harriton; David Rittenhouse (1732-96), astronomer and first Director of the Mint, removed from his family farm in Germantown; and Hugh Mercer (1726-77), hero of the Battle of Princeton, whose remains were disinterred from under the central aisle at Christ Church and transported up the Schuylkill on a funeral barge.

Soon, Laurel Hill grew popular among Philadelphia’s elite as both a burial site and tourist attraction. In 1844, Godey’s Lady’s Book noted that Laurel Hill served as the resting place “of our most responsible families in every walk of life.”  By then, more than 900 families owned lots there. In addition, nearly 30,000 people visited Laurel Hill each year, seeking to escape the city’s heat and crowds for its peaceful landscape. Some traveled from Philadelphia along Ridge Avenue via carriage or horse-car, but most preferred a scenic steamboat cruise from the Fairmount Water Works up the Schuylkill River to the Laurel Hill landing at Hunting Park Avenue. To minimize crowds, Laurel Hill’s managers closed the cemetery to all except lot-holders on Sunday, the one day when working-class Philadelphians would be free to visit.

Laurel Hill’s Expansion

Between 1849 and 1863, Laurel Hill’s managers acquired three additional tracts of land, enlarging it to more than 90 acres. Laurel Hill’s success sparked a rural cemetery boom. The Woodlands, Laurel Hill’s chief competitor for Philadelphia’s upper crust, was founded on the Hamilton estate in West Philadelphia in 1840. By 1876, there were more than twenty rural cemeteries in the Philadelphia region, many catering to specific religious and racial groups. Among them were Cathedral and New Cathedral Cemeteries for Catholics; Lebanon and Olive for African Americans; and Mount Sinai and Montefiore for Jews. Across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey, Harleigh Cemetery became the final resting place of poet Walt Whitman (1819-92).

While safeguarding the city’s water supply was the primary factor behind the founding of Fairmount Park in 1867, park advocates also cited the crowds of visitors to rural cemeteries as another reason to create an additional, vast public preserve. Eli Kirk Price (1797-1884), one of the park’s original commissioners, was also a founder of The Woodlands.  Along with other benefits, he hoped that a public park would reduce the number of visitors to his cemetery. In his original design for Fairmount Park, James Clark Sidney (c. 1819-81) incorporated many elements from his layout of South Laurel Hill in the 1850s.

During and after the Civil War, Laurel Hill became the resting place for hundreds of military figures, including George Gordon Meade (1815-72), leader of the Union Army at Gettysburg. Laurel Hill also attracted the men dominated local politics and business after the Civil War, including saw manufacturer Henry Disston (1819-78), publisher George W. Childs (1829-94), and traction magnate P.A.B. Widener (1834-1915). Many of these oligarchs were laid to rest in imposing mausoleums along “Millionaire’s Row,” overlooking Hunting Park Avenue.

By 1900, the overcrowded cemetery was hemmed in by an industrial neighborhood on its north and east sides, and by Fairmount Park to its south. Seeking alternative resting places, many Philadelphians turned to suburban cemeteries like West Laurel Hill, founded by John Jay Smith in Lower Merion in 1869. Laurel Hill’s decline accelerated after World War II, when the cemetery and surrounding community were beset by financial instability, neglect, and vandalism.

Dressed as Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” this man won the “Best Costume” award at Laurel Hill’s fourth Annual RIP 5k Run on October 6, 2012. (Laurel Hill Cemetery Company)

In the 1970s, concerned Philadelphians intervened. In 1978, the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery was founded by Drayton Smith (a direct descendant of John Jay Smith), his wife, Jane, and historian John Francis Marion. Marion began the popular tradition of nighttime Halloween tours, and the Friends successfully nominated the cemetery for the National Register of Historic Places and for designation as a National Historic Landmark. They raised funds to restore landscaping, public buildings, and hundreds of monuments. By the early twenty-first century, thousands of visitors each year attended public programs at Laurel Hill, including concerts, theatrical performances, photo workshops, films, ghost hunts, car shows, astronomy nights and walking tours. Like the Philadelphians who journeyed to the rural cemetery in the nineteenth century, visitors once again used the cemetery for recreation and relaxation amidst its beautiful landscape.

Thomas H. Keels is a local historian and the author or coauthor of six books on Philadelphia, including Forgotten Philadelphia: Lost Architecture of the Quaker City (Temple University Press, 2007).  His latest work, Sesqui! Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World’s Fair of 1926, a study of the ill-fated Sesquicentennial International Exposition, will be published by Temple in early 2017. (Author information current at time of publication.)


Copyright 2012, Rutgers University


John Jay Smith

Laurel Hill Cemetery Company

John Jay Smith (1798-1881) was a Quaker entrepreneur, editor, horticulturist, librarian, and a descendant of James Logan of Stenton. He conceived the idea of Laurel Hill when he was unable to locate the grave of a young daughter at the Arch Street Meeting House. In the autumn of 1835 he joined forces with former mayor Benjamin W. Richards, druggist Frederick Brown, architect William Strickland and merchant Nathan Dunn, to plan the creation of Philadelphia’s first rural cemetery.

Laurel Hill Ground Plan

Smith and his fellow investors considered several sites before selecting the estate of the late Joseph Sims. Laurel Hill was located on the east bank of the Schuylkill River nearly four miles above the city’s northern boundary of Vine Street. In early 1836, the group organized formally as the Laurel Hill Cemetery Company. This 1844 map of the cemetery shows many features of the Sims estate still intact, including the mansion located above the circle of the formal Shrubbery or Medallion garden. As the visitor moved from the gatehouse on Ridge Avenue (at the bottom of the plan) west toward the Schuylkill River (at top), the landscape grew more wooded and natural, culminating with a series of terraces sloping down to the river. (Courtesy of James Hill Jr.)

Laurel Hill Cemetery, 1848

Laurel Hill Cemetery Company

An idealized view of Laurel Hill Cemetery, issued by the New York firm of Goupil, Vibert & Co. in 1848, looks west from Ford Road, today's Clearfield Avenue. In the foreground, two equestrians canter through the picturesque rural landscape. In the background, John Notman's Gothic chapel can be seen to the right of his neoclassical gatehouse; while at left, a funeral cortege, complete with hearse and mourners' carriages, advances along Ridge Pike toward the cemetery.

Laurel Hill Bridge

Laurel Hill Cemetery Company

Laurel Hill’s growing popularity made expansion beyond its initial thirty-two acres imperative. In 1844, the managers purchased an estate located half a mile south of the cemetery, and renamed it South Laurel Hill. In 1863, the manager purchased the middle property, naming it Central Laurel Hill. Shown above is the bridge built over Nicetown Lane (today Hunting Park Avenue) to connect South Laurel Hill (at left) and Central Laurel Hill (at right), with the Schuylkill River in the background. At right are some of the mausoleums along “Millionaire’s Row.”

Childs Mausoleum

Laurel Hill Cemetery Company

Millionaire’s Row is lined with the mausoleums of the “new money” industrialists and financiers who dominated Philadelphia after the Civil War. In this ca. 1930 photo, a Laurel Hill worker cleans the family mausoleum of George W. Childs (1829-94), one of Philadelphia’s leading book and newspaper publishers. With financier and longtime friend Anthony J. Drexel (1826-93), Childs owned the Public Ledger, turning it into one of the most influential papers in the country. In 1880, Childs and Drexel developed the suburban community of Wayne on the Main Line. When Drexel died in 1893, his body rested in the Childs mausoleum temporarily while the Drexel mausoleum was being constructed at The Woodlands cemetery.

Cemetery Strollers

By the 1840s, Laurel Hill had become one of Philadelphia’s “lions,” an attraction which every visitor had to see. John Jay Smith planted 800 trees and shrubs, creating the lush landscape seen in the ca. 1844 print above. Elegantly dressed promenaders enjoy Laurel Hill’s elaborate monuments, its summer pavilion (at far right), and the view down the Schuylkill River to the city of Philadelphia. Engravers usually exercised creative license for prints like this, gathering all of Laurel Hill’s most elegant monuments into one imaginary landscape. Years before Philadelphia had a public park, art museum, or arboretum, Laurel Hill Cemetery served in all three capacities. (Courtesy of James Hill Jr.)

Laurel Hill Gatehouse

Philadelphia’s leading architects, William Strickland and Thomas Ustick Walter, submitted designs in the Egyptian style for the gatehouse of Laurel Hill. The commission, however, went to a young Scottish immigrant named John Notman (1810-65). Shortly afterward, Strickland resigned from the cemetery board. For the gatehouse, Notman designed a massive Roman arch framed by an imposing classical colonnade, and topped by a large ornamental urn. (Courtesy of James Hill Jr.)

Laurel Hill Landing

Laurel Hill Cemetery Company

The preferred way of reaching Laurel Hill was to take a steamboat from a pier near the Fairmount Water Works, traveling up the Schuylkill River to the Laurel Hill landing. The number of visitors was so great that the managers began issuing admission tickets to prospective visitors. On Sunday – the one free day for most working people – the cemetery was open only to lot-holders and their families. This selectivity extended to the cemetery’s clientele: burial at Laurel Hill was restricted to white Protestants well into the twentieth century. The managers even discouraged unmarried people from purchasing lots, so that Laurel Hill would be a family cemetery.

Laurel Hill Chapel

John Notman also designed a chapel for Laurel Hill in the newly popular Gothic Revival style. An on-site chapel was a necessity, since many ministers would not perform funeral ceremonies there, either because of the distance from the city or because they were upset over the loss of burial fees for their own churchyards. While Notman’s gatehouse still stands on Ridge Avenue, the chapel was demolished in the 1880s to make room for burial lots. (Courtesy of James Hill Jr.)

Old Mortality

Laurel Hill Cemetery Company

The cemetery managers purchased a statuary group known as “Old Mortality” from the Scottish sculptor James Thom and placed it in the central courtyard, within a Tudor enclosure designed by Notman. Based on a tale by author Sir Walter Scott, the group shows Scott talking to Old Mortality, an elderly man who traveled through the Highlands, recarving weathered graves. “Old Mortality” was the first thing seen by visitors to Laurel Hill after passing through the gatehouse. The statues not only reminded them that they were on a similar mission of memory, but assured them that they were in a cultured and established environment. This ca. 1920 photo shows Walter Scott on the left and Old Mortality atop a gravestone, observed by a pony and a bust of James Thom.

Honoring General Meade

Laurel Hill Cemetery Company

George Gordon Meade (1815-72) is the most distinguished of Laurel Hill’s forty Civil War generals. On June 28, 1863, Meade was placed in command of the Army of the Potomac. Within three days, his army was engaged in battle with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. After three days of battle and 60,000 casualties, Meade’s army forced the Southern forces to retreat. After the war, he retired to Philadelphia, whose citizens presented him with a house at 1836 Delancey Place. Meade died of pneumonia on November 7, 1872. Four days later, President U.S. Grant, General Sherman, the Governor of Pennsylvania, members of the Cabinet, and thousands of Meade’s former soldiers attended his funeral at Laurel Hill Cemetery. For many years, G.A.R. Post #1 (General George Gordon Meade) held an elaborate memorial service at Meade’s grave on Memorial Day, as shown by this photo from May 31, 1901. Today, the Meade Society perpetuates the tradition with a graveside service and champagne toast on Meade’s birthday, December 31.

The Warner Lot

Laurel Hill Cemetery Company

The Warner lot is an example of the elaborate family or “dynasty” plots that filled Central Laurel Hill in the years after the Civil War. The monument at far right, showing a mysterious woman lifting a sarcophagus lid to release the spirit within, is by Alexander Milne Calder (1846- 1923), creator of the statuary on Philadelphia’s City Hall. (Sadly, the monument was vandalized in the 1970s, and both of the woman’s arms were smashed.) The other monuments in the foreground also represent elaborately carved sarcophagi. The smaller graves in the background were moved from a Center City churchyard when the Warner family purchased their Laurel Hill lot.

New Traditions

Laurel Hill Cemetery Company

Dressed as Jack Skellington from "The Nightmare Before Christmas," complete with Jack's ghost dog Zero, this man won the “Best Costume” award at Laurel Hill's fourth Annual RIP 5k Run on October 6, 2012.

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Related Reading

175 Years of Reflections, Laurel Hill Cemetery, 1836-2011.  Philadelphia, PA: Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, 2011.

Dickey, John M.  Historic Structure Report on Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the Friends of Laurel Hill.  May 1979.

Greiff, Constance M.  John Notman, Architect.  Philadelphia, PA: The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 1979.

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

Lewis, Michael J.  “The First Design for Fairmount Park.”  Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. CXXX, No. 3 (July 2006), pp.283-297.

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

McDannell, Colleen.  “The Religious Symbolism of Laurel Hill Cemetery.”  Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol.111, No. 3 (July 1987): 275-304. (PDF)

Sloane, David Charles.  The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Wunsch, Aaron V. National Historic Landmark Nomination,  submitted February 25, 1998.

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