History

Oak Hill Consecrated

In the center of Georgetown, lying along Rock Creek, a neighbor of Dumbarton Oaks (where John C. Calhoun lived while in the U.S. Senate) and for Evermay, is a 19th Century garden park cemetery rivaled only by Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery in graciousness and a sense of community.

The Oak Hill Cemetery was founded by Mr. William W. Corcoran. Mr. Corcoran was a banker and founder of The Riggs National Bank, what is now known as PNC Bank. He may have kept the Union Treasury solvent in the Mexican War by persuading the British to buy U.S. bonds. He was a man of many tastes and philanthropies (e.g. the Corcoran Gallery; the Louise Home). In 1848, Mr. Corcoran purchased 15 acres along Rock Creek from George Corbin Washington (a distinguished lawyer and a great-nephew of the First President) and his son Lewis W. Washington. When the Cemetery Company was incorporated by Act of Congress on March 3, 1849, Mr. Corcoran contributed the land to the Company. Captain George F. de la Roche, a master engineer, supervised the grading, including the creation of a grand wall along Rock Creek, and the plotting. James Renwick, Jr., architect of the Smithsonian Building and the original Corcoran Gallery which is now the Renwick Gallery, designed the iron gate pillars and the Chapel (built in 1849) which is a representation of the finest English specimens of old Gothic chapels. The cemetery itself is a major example of the 19th Century Romantic movement, the natural and not formal English garden, an acceptance and blending of nature rather than a geometrical imposition. The greatest American proponent of the natural garden and its application to cemeteries was Andrew Jackson Downing, and there is evidence but no conclusive record that he did the landscape designs of Oak Hill Cemetery.

Maintenance of the natural garden is the cemetery’s greatest tenet. Because of Oak Hill’s age, its history is largely the 19th Century, with emphasis on the great Civil War. All lots were sold long ago and, until recently, the only new interments possible were in the few spaces remaining in old family lots. New projects have created casket and cremation spaces under the paths and walkways. This is being done by excavating and installing double depth concrete crypts over which new Buckingham slate walks or grassy pathways are installed, with appropriate spaces on each side for memorial stones. In this manner, new interment spaces are available. Thus, Oak Hill will be a neighborhood cemetery garden with a continuing history for years to come.

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