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The Landscape Tells a Story: The Role of a Cemetery in the Life of Philadelphia

Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in Johanna Hoffman’s series about the historical and geographical contexts of specific locations in and around Philadelphia. It will delve into the histories of the regional landscape, both current and past. If you are interested in contributing similar stories about your city, please contact Julia [at] americancity.org. To read the first article, click here.

Though its tall stonewalls cultivate an air of isolation, The Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia is very much in the center of city life. The high rises of Penn Medical School tower over the property’s granite gravestones and aged sycamores. Stand next to The Woodland’s 18th century manor – all peeling paint, arched windows, and patched brickwork – and the traffic on Highway 76 is clearly visible. A SEPTA station runs across from the cemetery’s iron gates.

In many ways, The Woodland’s story is a mirror of Philadelphia’s own. Like the city itself, The Woodlands has long been an entry point for new ideas. First developed in 1735 by the Hamilton family, it was one of the city’s first grand suburban estates; at its largest it spanned six hundred acres, from the Schuylkill to what is now Market St in the north, and 42nd street in the west. In the late 1700s, Hamilton’s grandson, an anglophile by the name of William, reconstructed the main house into a 16-room English style manor that became the toast of the East Coast, and set the architectural tone for the region in the following century. William was also a devoted botanist and created an arboretum that, at its peak, housed over one thousand trees, including the first specimens of ginko, mulberry, maple and poplar introduced to America, as well as seeds harvested from Lewis and Clark’s travels to the West.

It was around the time that New York began to eclipse Philadelphia as the leading cultural and commercial center of the East that the grandeur of The Woodlands began to wane. William Hamilton had died and by 1840 much of the estate was converted into a rural cemetery. This was an age when most urban burial grounds had become over-crowded and unsavory; recently buried bodies were commonly dug up to make way for new corpses. In contrast, rural cemeteries presented a wholesome atmosphere, and The Woodlands quickly evolved into a popular resting place for Philadelphia’s more affluent caste.

Since then, The Woodlands has become a setting of increasingly egalitarian urban interaction. Before the era of public parks was ushered in with the construction of Central Park in 1873, rural cemeteries presented unique opportunities for city dwellers to interact with nature. While large-scale urban commons like London’s Hyde Park were reserved for the wealthy aristocracy, cemeteries were places where most everyone was welcome; visits were often family affairs that included picnics and lawn games. Even today, exclusivity governs many outdoor urban spaces – in New York City’s Gramercy Park, for instance, visitors need a special key to enter. In the mid 19th century, however, elitism was still the rule rather than the exception and garden cemeteries like The Woodlands, or the older Laurel Hill, were valued destinations for the living as well as the dead.

That trend of public access is still alive at The Woodlands. Well-bundled joggers from various parts of the city use it as an exercise park, chatting and running around the granite headstones and serpentine obelisks regardless of the weather. On sunny days, commuters emerging from the SEPTA station take detours across the lawns. Urban explorers roam The Woodlands in the mornings, investigating the decrepit manor house and the fallen gravestones. Grandparents take their small grandchildren there for afternoon walks.

As the city expands, The Woodlands’ role in Philadelphia’s history grows. Part of that role is historical. The property was first built when the city had yet to reach the banks of the Schuylkill; it hearkens back to times when West Philly was a riparian wetland. The Woodlands played host to the East Coast domestication of wild plants from West, when the Louisiana Territories were still uncharted.

The majority of its relevance, however, comes from its proximity to city life. Unlike Laurel Hill Cemetery, built amidst the trees of Fairmount Park, The Woodlands stands in the center of West Philadelphia’s urban fabric. Tall office buildings and fast new cars are the backdrop for the cemetery’s green hillocks and Celtic-style crosses. The old world preserved inside its walls – the stately manor house, mossy graves stones and wizened trees – is made all the more precious by the immediacy of modern life outside.

Tags: philadelphiabuilt environmenthistoric preservation