Day of the living dead: A fall fantasy

On a beautiful day, when there was just a nip of fall in the air, I went for a scenic walk through Philadelphia’s distinguished past—not in Old City, not in Society Hill, but just a few blocks from Penn at Woodlands Cemetery. I had seen it from the train, but never visited.

I found, to my amazement, sunlit rooms, the Philadelphia Social Register circa 1900 at rest and a riot of romantic Victorian iconography.

Penn and the cemetery have been entwined for 200 years. Before World War I, a temporary amphitheater created in a ravine shared by the campus and the cemetery was used for summer musicales.

(Andrew) Hamiltonian influence

In fact, the Hamilton family (Andrew, not Alexander), which developed the 250-acre estate on a bluff overlooking the Schuylkill River, was instrumental in getting the University Trustees to relocate the campus from Ninth Street in Center City to the place they immodestly called “Hamiltonville” in the wilds of West Philadelphia.

Even earlier, at the turn of the 19th century, Penn’s great botany professor Benjamin Smith Barton, who taught Meriwether Lewis, used the estate’s renowned botanical garden for his own studies.

I drove through the imposing gates at 40th Street and Woodland Avenue designed by Paul Philipe Cret, one of the most influential architects of the Beaux-Arts tradition, professor at Penn and now a permanent resident of plot K109 on West Gate Avenue.

A rural sanctuary, now in the city

I wound my way on the curvilinear avenues through the well-kept grounds of what was one of America’s first rural cemeteries. Laid out in a style then fashionable in England and France, with winding roads that trace the contours and topography of the site, the Woodlands, like its counterpart off Kelly Drive, Mt. Laurel Cemetery, became a popular recreation area. The idea in 1840 was to create a peaceful sanctuary in a natural setting outside the city. Even on a recent bright fall day with the quiet roar of the Schuylkill Expressway in the background, it still worked.

The magnificent Woodlands mansion, completed in 1789, stands at the center of the cemetery. One of the most perfect examples of Federal-style architecture, it is in a somewhat shabby state, but with floor-to-ceiling windows in its two oval reception rooms and French doors leading to a wide portico facing the river, you can easily discern its “great bones.”

In 1806, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Hamilton, “The Woodlands is the only rival which I have known in America to what may be seen in England.” The clink, clink, clink of hammers hitting nails as workmen installed a new roof indicates that the mansion is being restored.

Who was who

I grabbed a copy of a map that tells you were the bodies are buried. Woodlands is chock-a-block with a “who was who” of Philadelphia—Biddles and Drexels, the painter Thomas Eakins, the subject of his masterpiece Dr. Samuel Gross, abolitionist and suffragette Mary Grew, architect Wilson Eyre, Jr. and John Edgar Thomson, third president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

I discovered a treasure trove of Victorian funeral architecture. There were uncounted obelisks that pay homage to our forebears’ enthusiasm for classical antiquity and all things Egyptian (see the Washington Monument). There were plain crosses and Celtic crosses. Dreamy spires pieced the bright blue sky. Classical urns, some draped, some undraped, were another favorite motif. An imposing granite angel atop the grave of Mary Ludlow (1824-1885) was worth a stop.

But most impressive were the family vaults—a miniature Gothic revival church replete with fleur-de-lis pendants and pointed arches and a steeply pitched roof that serves as the vault for the McDaniels family and a perfect cube, inscribed with words from my favorite movement of Handel’s “Messiah”—“I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

Philadelphia is famous for its hidden treasures. I will now count the Woodlands among them.

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Originally published on October 30, 2003