Located on approximately 75 acers in Philadelphia’s East Falls section, Laurel Hill Cemetery was founded by Quaker John Jay Smith in 1836. Designed by Scottish-American architect, John Notman, it served, and continues to serve as much more than a cemetery. Laurel Hill was designed as a public space in the era before the development of public parks. It provides a bucolic setting with picturesque views of the Schuylkill River and its more than 33,000 monuments, tombs and mausoleums represent more than memorials to the dead, many of them are works of art. Laurel Hill is one of the few cemeteries to be designated as a National Historic Landmark, which it achieved in 1998.
In the first
half of the 19th century, Philadelphia experienced rapid growth as
its population expanded from 81,000 in 1800 to 189,000 by 1830. As a result, it was running out of space to
properly inter its dead. John Jay Smith
experienced this problem first hand after his daughter’s mortal remains were
treated in an immoral manner. He then
took it upon himself to create a cemetery outside the city. He and his partners sought a rural, natural
setting in which to place their cemetery and acquired the Laurel Hill estate
from its owner, Joseph Simms.
held an architectural design contest which Scottish born John Notman won. Notman designed a 3-tiered, circular system
that converged on the cemetery’s center and permitted views of the river
below. He also designed the Doric Roman
Gatehouse and the superintendent’s house and chapel. After it was completed in 1839 Philadelphians
used the space for picnics, carriage rides, leisurely strolls and
In order to
give their cemetery some publicity, Smith and his partners managed to have the
remains of famous Revolutionary War era leaders, such as the Secretary of the Continental
Congress, Charles Thomas and Declaration of Independence signatory, Thomas McKean,
moved to Laurel Hill. Over the years,
other famous Americans were buried at Laurel Hill, to include 40 Civil War
generals, such as George Gordon Meade; business leaders, such as Matthais
Baldwin and Peter Widener; and numerous local, state and federal
politicians. More recently, seats from
Veteran’s Stadium were placed beside the gravesite of long-time Phillies
announcer, Harry Kalas.
years, especially after World War II, Laurel Hill was neglected and in
desperate need of restoration by the 1970s.
Consequently, the Friends of Laurel Hill was founded in 1978 to complete
the necessary restorations and to care for the cemetery now and in the
future. They also provide tour guides,
educational and research materials and sponsor concerts, ghost hunts, and
special event tours, such as Hot Spots and Storied Plots and ‘Til Death do Us
Part: the Love Stories of Laurel Hill.
also represents numerous examples of some of the best funerary art in the
country. Artists such as Alexander Milne
Caldor, William Strickland and others created works of art from marble,
granite, sandstone and cast iron. They
have introduced thousands of visitors to Classical, Gothic and Egyptian Revival
architecture, whether said visitors realized it or not.