Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
In-fill development, historic preservation, and new construction present some of the same problems for the departed as they do for the living.
Oak Hill Cemetery is one of the oldest landscapes in Washington, D.C. By the standard of historic gardens, though, it is a pretty young thing. It was founded in 1849 by William Wilson Corcoran, a philanthropist and art collector who bequeathed the land to Congress in concert with the act creating the Oak Hill Cemetery Company. It is still a working cemetery today.
For the nation’s capital, Oak Hill Cemetery is hallowed ground, a repository for the memory and remains of many great Washingtonians. One of them is Ben Bradlee, the longtime executive editor of The Washington Post. Bradlee steered the newspaper through its greatest era, during which it published portions of the Pentagon Papers and took down President Richard Nixon. Bradlee died in October 2014; his mausoleum, now under construction at Oak Hill Cemetery, is suitably grandiose.
Yet its construction is a conundrum for Oak Hill Cemetery. Bradlee’s mausoleum occupies pride of place: It is immediately visible from the entrance, the first major feature that greets visitors through the gatehouse. When it is completed, the Bradlee mausoleum will command one of the cemetery’s most important landscape features, the Ellipse. The new addition joins the “entrance ensemble,” a suite of features that includes the Renwick Chapel, a Gothic Revival building designed by James Renwick, the great American architect, in 1849.
Just five years ago, the board of Oak Hill Cemetery approved a new corridor of mausoleums between the tree lines along the northern edge of the Ellipse. The Bradlee mausoleum is the most prominent of these planned structures—eight to 10 in total, according to the board’s president, George Hill—advancing before the tree line. It’s a departure from the in-fill development that has happened in recent years. And arguably, it’s a disruption to an historic landscape.
“My job is to make sure that Oak Hill is not just open next month or next year,” Hill says. “If that means we need to develop the back of the Ellipse in as subtle a way as possible, I think that’s something we should do.”
Oak Hill Cemetery is one of the nation’s great “rural cemeteries,” landscape-oriented burial grounds that were typically built just outside city boundaries during the 19th century. (Oak Hill, which is located in Georgetown, falls firmly within D.C. city limits today, but that wasn’t always the case.) Other examples of rural cemeteries include Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, and Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
Oak Hill Cemetery is different from those examples, however. Each of those cemeteries occupies at least 100 acres. Green-Wood Cemetery in New York sits on 478 acres. Oak Hill Cemetery, on the other hand, has just 22 acres. Its small size means that even little changes represent significant alterations to the original landscape, to say nothing of large additions such as the Bradlee mausoleum on the Ellipse.
Changes at Oak Hill Cemetery are more than just aesthetic. There are many mysteries that have yet to be solved about the place. No one knows who designed it, for example. There’s some evidence to suggest that it was Andrew Jackson Downing, who (with Calvert Vaux) designed the grounds for the White House and the Smithsonian Institution. Jacob Bigelow, who founded the nation’s first rural cemetery, Boston’s Mount Auburn, may have designed the fence at Oak Hill. Firm answers about the history of the cemetery slip farther out of reach, though, with changes to its intrinsic landscape features. And a cemetery cannot be in the business of losing sight of the past.
“Hypothetically, let’s say that someone like Downing designed this,” says Charles Birnbaum, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. “You’re then inserting something where you’ve got the pedigree of Downing, Bigelow, and James Renwick. But we don’t know.”
Caretakers have mostly minimized changes to the landscape at Oak Hill Cemetery. The board has added double-deep casket sites underneath pathways, for example. The cemetery has also put in plots under steps, and even inserted cremated remains inside the steps themselves. The biggest addition over the last 30 years may be the columbarium, which includes some 400 niches for urns. The board hasn’t seriously added new mausoleums since the 1960s.
If the landscape design was important to the way people understood the function and space of the cemetery in the 19th century, then it’s worth preserving today. But there’s no obvious mechanism for weighing these considerations.
Dave Jackson, superintendent for Oak Hill Cemetery, says that there isn’t any formal approval or permitting process for building new mausoleums. Thomas Luebke, secretary for the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, says that funerary elements would only fall under its jurisdiction if the D.C. government referred a building permit to the commission. Building officials with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs didn’t respond to queries.
Preservation questions would not appear to fall to the Old Georgetown Board, the body entrusted with design review in Old Georgetown. In fact, Stephen Muse, an architect and member of the Old Georgetown Board, designed the Bradlee mausoleum. (He did not return requests for comment.)
“My hope is, at the end of the day, at a minimum, now that we know this sort of thing is happening, that moving forward, there would be best practices at Oak Hill Cemetery,” says Charles Birnbaum, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. “This would suggest undertaking a cultural landscape report. This would suggest nominating the cemetery for the National Register of Historic Places—at a minimum.”
Right now, only the Renwick Chapel is listed on the National Register of Historic Place. Birnbaum adds, “I think [Oak Hill Cemetery] is one of the most historic designed landscapes in Washington. This level of intervention is inappropriate.”
Hill says that Oak Hill Cemetery is only viable as a working cemetery—which means building in the few places left. Some 20,000 souls are interred in Oak Hill Cemetery, and it will not fit many more. The sloping terraced landscape near Rock Creek Park is too steep and inaccessible for funerals, for example.
“You can find very few cemeteries in this country that are thriving and financially viable,” Hill says. “I think you can find a lot of cemeteries that are in desperate shape.”
When there’s nowhere left for the dead to be buried, Oak Hill Cemetery will become a museum. It could be 10 years from now, Hill says, or 75 years from now. But charity will not support the cemetery when construction no longer can. In the meantime, he says, the board will do everything it can to preserve the melancholic character of the original 19th century landscape. And he draws some bright lines around how they’ll do that.
“I am absolutely sure that Oak Hill, its board, and its patrons are not ready for ghost tours and dog-walking,” he says. “It’s just not who we are.”