ON THIS SPOT: Cemeteries in the City

When I first moved to Brookland I quickly noticed how many cemeteries there seemed to be in our vicinity. As it turns out, of the 22 existing cemeteries within the District of Columbia borders, twelve are still active, and seven of those are located within two miles of us. 

Of course there were once many more burial grounds in the city, in churchyards, family plots, community cemeteries, and municipal grounds. They were usually crowded and not well-tended, and many conducted their burials chronologically, separating family members from each other. Those criticisms, along with growing fears of disease due to unhealthy conditions, caused legislation to be introduced in 1852 that forbade new cemeteries within the Federal City -- the highly-populated area south of Florida Avenue, between the two rivers and east of Rock Creek. All new cemeteries in the District were consigned to Washington County, which included the area that would become Brookland. 

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That change coincided with the rise of the Rural Cemetery Movement, which promoted cemeteries as places of well-landscaped beauty and tranquility, with appealing views and walking paths for contemplation. The first rural cemetery in Washington was Oak Hill in Georgetown, which opened in 1849. Soon after came Glenwood on Lincoln Avenue (now Lincoln Road) in 1853. Others began to sprout up, Prospect Hill and Mount Olivet in 1858, and St. Mary’s in 1875.  As downtown development increased, so did pressure on the old cemeteries to sell their valuable land. To do so, many began to reinter their graves in the new cemeteries in Washington County.

Those new cemeteries soon became destination spots, a place to take the family for a nice stroll and absorb the fresh air and verdant landscape. They were especially popular in the spring. If you’re so inclined, here’s a quick tour of the nearby burial grounds:

1.) Glenwood: 2219 Lincoln Road, NE. The cemetery layout was designed by George F. de la Roche, who was inspired by Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Many notables are buried at Glenwood, including Clark Mills, the sculptor who created the statue of Freedom atop the Capitol; Alexander Gardner, famed Civil War photographer; Constantino Brumidi, who painted many of the frescoes in the Capitol building; and on the darker side, George Atzerodt, who was executed for his role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  

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The Glenwood Mortuary Chapel was built by noted architect Glenn Brown in 1892, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Glenwood Mortuary Chapel, 1900.   (photo Library of Congress)

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Glenwood Mortuary Chapel, 2016

2.) Prospect Hill: 2201 North Capitol Street NE. Directly adjacent to Glenwood, Prospect Hill was originally built for German Lutherans, and many of the gravestones are inscribed in German. From 1885 through 1897, Prospect Hill Cemetery fought the city, who wanted to extend North Capitol Street through the cemetery grounds. Arguments about just compensation and eminent domain went to the courts and Congress a number of times until an agreement was finally worked out to allow the street to cut through the property. Today the cemetery is non-denominational.

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3.) St. Mary’s: 2121 Lincoln Road NE. One of the smallest of the active cemeteries, St. Mary’s was established in 1875 and originally called Saint Mary Mother of God German Catholic Cemetery. It sits on ground formerly owned by Secretary of the Treasury and U.S. Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who built his mansion “Edgewood” a few hundred yards away.

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4.) Mount Olivet: 1300 Bladensburg Road NE. Mount Olivet is the city’s largest Catholic cemetery. Many of the older Catholic churches downtown relocated their graves here.  Mount Olivet was one of the few cemeteries open to all races from its inception in 1858. It has a few famous and infamous interments. Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison, was buried here after he was hanged at the Old Capitol Prison. Perhaps the cemetery’s most famous resident died in similar circumstances. Mary Surrat, hanged for her part in the Lincoln assassination, was the first woman ever executed by the United States.

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5.) Franciscan Monastery: 1400 Quincy Street NE. The only burial ground within the confines of Brookland proper, the Franciscan Monastery cemetery is for members of the order only. It was proposed in 1900, but a number of the Monastery’s neighbors objected to the cemetery being closer than 200 yards from residential property, which was the legal requirement. After months of negotiations, the Franciscans moved the proposed cemetery to 605 feet away from the nearest dwelling, thus falling within the parameters of the law (barely), and it was built in 1901.

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source: Google maps

6.) Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery: 21 Harewood Road NW. Formally known as the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery, this was the country’s first national cemetery, begun at the start of the Civil War in 1861 after the first battle of Bull Run. The cemetery was attached to the Soldiers’ Home, a facility for disabled and elderly soldiers which opened in 1851. A cottage on the Soldiers' Home grounds also served as a summer home for President Lincoln and his family. Lincoln would sometimes take walks and visit the freshly dug graves at the cemetery as the war progressed. Since it is a national cemetery, burials are available for veterans only.

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7.) Rock Creek Cemetery: Rock Creek Church Road and Webster Street NW. It is the oldest active cemetery in the city. Started in 1719 as an Anglican “chapel of ease” (as opposed to a formal parish), Rock Creek Church tended to the religious needs of the sparse population of western Prince George’s County, of which it was then a part. It is now non-denominational, and is most known for some of its significant artwork. There are sculptures by Gutzon Borglum (who created the Mount Rushmore memorial) and most famously Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose work on the Adams Memorial has become internationally renowned. Popularly known as “Grief,” the formal name of the sculpture is "The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.” 

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“Grief” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

The cemetery expanded from its small chapel roots to a full-fledged rural cemetery in the 1840s and is now one of the most-visited of Washington’s historic cemeteries.

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Rock Creek Cemetery lake, circa 1912.        (photo: Historical Society of Washington) 

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The lake today.

There have been many famous burials here, including Montgomery Blair, Gilbert Grosvenor, Christian Heurich, George McGovern, Upton Sinclair, and Tim Russert. There are also three grave markers at Rock Creek that have a particular interest for Brooklanders; they were discovered at the intersection of 12th and Monroe streets when Brookland was first being laid out in 1887, and reinterred here. Who they were and how they got there is a fascinating story -- but you’ll need to wait for my next post to hear about it.

There is one more nearby cemetery I’d like to talk about, but it is no longer active, in fact is no longer there: Columbian Harmony Cemetery. It used to be at Rhode Island Avenue and 9th St. NE, where the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station is now. It was started in 1857 by the Columbian Harmony Society, an African American aid society, who had outgrown their downtown cemetery the Harmoneon. For decades, it was the most active African American cemetery in the city.  

1887 Hopkins map showing Harmony cemetery. The proposed route for the soon-to-be-built Rhode Island Avenue is just above it in pink.  (map: Library of Congress)

Harmony filled up quickly and by 1950 was closed to new burials. The society eventually worked out a deal with a real estate developer to trade the land at Rhode Island Avenue for acreage in Maryland that would hold a new cemetery. In 1960, nearly 37,000 graves were moved to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover. It was the largest cemetery move in the District’s history. Here is a photo of Harmony in its last days. Most of the graves had already been moved by this point. The buildings seen along Rhode Island Avenue still exist.

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Columbian Harmony Cemetery, 1960    (photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Unfortunately, the deal to move Harmony did not include moving the headstones and memorials, just the graves themselves. For many years, no one knew exactly what happened to the markers. In 2009, some hikers discovered them, lying along the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia. Photographer Edd Fuller visted the site shortly after and took these pictures: 

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It turns out that although some of the memorials and monuments were buried on the site of the old Harmony cemetery, the landowner was allowed to haul away the remaining debris, which included many headstones, and use it as riprap (rubble used to reinforce shorelines). To make matters worse, most of the transfers to the new cemetery were reinterred without identifcation, making it next to impossible to locate a specific grave. A rather sad end for a historic cemetery.

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© Robert Malesky 2017