So, back on September 4, I went picture-taking at Oak Hill Cemetery here in Washington, D.C. You can see the entire set of photos here on my Flickr account.
It's not just that I have an ongoing architectural fascination with funerary art. It's also that I am very deeply interested in D.C. history, and Oak Hill is a big part of that.
Oak Hill Cemetery was founded by William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888), a legendary figure in early Washington, D.C. Corcoran co-founded Riggs National Bank (now part of PNC Bank), and the bank he established built its main branch directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the U.S. Treasury Building. This bank structure still stands to this day! Corcoran was also a believer in art, and he built the art collection that became the Corcoran Gallery. He was one of D.C.'s leading early citizens, and one of the wealthiest men in the country in the first half of the 19th century.
Now let's skip themes a bit.
People don't think about death a lot. Funerals, wills, burial plots, grave stones -- it's not something many of us today ever consider until we're two feet in the grave and sliding in. Few of us ever have to face the choices to be made until we are in our 50s or 60s and our own parents die. But in the 1800s, death was constantly about everyone. Two out of three children died before the age of 10; even in the wealthiest of families, one out of three kids was dead from disease. It was quite common for diseases such as yellow fever, scarlet fever, smallpox, cholera, or typhoid to strike vast numbers of a city's population each summer and for large numbers of young adults and the elderly to succumb with shocking swiftness to disease. Today, simple antibiotics cure yellow fever and scarlet fever. But there was a time when, if anyone saw a case of yellow fever -- whole towns would empty of their citizenry as terrified people fled the plague. D.C. was no exception, and the city was ravaged by typhoid, yellow fever, malaria, and scarlet fever once or twice a year.
The interesting thing about D.C. is that it was only founded in 1791. By 1800, there were just 8,144 people living here. Compare that to the 79,216 living in New York City, the 24,937 living in Boston, the 41,220 living in Philadelphia, or the 26,514 living in Baltimore. At the time, Beijing and London had more than 1 million people living in them, Paris had 546,856, and Rome had 153,004. Even Madrid had 33,500 people living in it.
Most people in D.C. were buried at home. It was quite common for a family in those days to simply bury their loved ones in the back yard. But as the population rose, this became impractical. The first cemetery in the District of Columbia was Rock Creek Cemetery, founded on the grounds of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in 1719. Presbyterian Burying Ground opened in 1802, Congressional Cemetery followed in 1807, Mount Zion in 1807, and Harmoneon in 1828. By mid-century, however, a number of cemeteries were being built in the city: Holy Rood (1832), Glenwood (1854), Methodist (1855), Mount Olivet (1858), Prospect Hill (1858), and Columbian Harmony (1859).
Now back to William Wilson Corcoran: Oak Hill was part of this great cemetery movement in the city. At the time, the District of Columbia was treated like a county. Within the county were several cities and towns: Alexandria, Georgetown, and the Federal City. The boundary of the Federal City (e.g., "Washington" in "D.C.") was Rock Creek in the west, Florida Avenue (then known, appropriately as Boundary Avenue), 15th Street NW, East Capitol Street, the Anacostia River, and the Potomac River. Georgetown was clearly thriving compared to the Federal City, and where you had people -- you had bodies to bury. So in 1848, W.W. Corcoran purchased 15 acres along Rock Creek from George Corbin Washington, the great-nephew of George Washington. He named his cemetery Oak Hill, and it was incorporated by Act of Congress on March 3, 1849.
The cemetery occupies some very steep ground punctuated by small, high hills. Captain George F. de la Roche of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed the layout. The cemetery is in the Romantic style. Now, in the 1600s and 1700s, most gardens were what we call today Italianate Formal. They were laid out in geometric patterns, often terraced to create flat areas (hills were not permitted), with straight pathways, and most trees and shrubs pruned to create smooth, geometric designs. But by the late 1700s, this concept of "man imposing rationality on nature" was supplanted by Romanticism -- the idea that man should exist in harmony with nature to express emotion and higher ideals. In terms of gardens, the Romantic style emphasized planting grass, flowers, shrubs, and trees to mimic nature rather than impose a geometric design. Rolling hills and winding paths were the norm. De la Roche designed Oak Hill to be a Romantic cemetery, and his is not only one of the earliest such designs, it is one of the most successful. De la Roche's greatest creation at Oak Hill Cemetery, however, was the "grand bank" -- an exceptionally steep slope that overlooked Rock Creek. Here were placed some of the largest and grandest mausoleums in an isolated setting shaded by large trees. Here, the richest families in the District of Columbia could build places of rest where the souls of the dead could be shaded by trees and soothed by the burbling brook below. (Now, of course, they are all angered up by the roaring of traffic passing on Rock Creek & Potomac Parkway below, but I digress.)
James Renwick, Jr., the architect who designed the Smithsonian Castle and the Corcoran Gallery (now the Renwick Gallery), also designed Oak Hill's Gatehouse, wrought-iron main gates, and Chapel. The Gatehouse is in the Italianate style, while the Chapel is Gothic Revival.
All the spaces at Oak Hill Cemetery were pretty much sold by the early 1900s. The only burials occurring were in the few remaining spaces in old family plots or mausoleums. By the 1920s, Oak Hill was silent. The cemetery was difficult to maintain, as powered lawn mowers had a tough time with the steep hills. Few gravestones were flush with the earth, and it was labor-intensive to cut the grass around the big above-ground monuments. Many of the mausoleums and monuments were poorly designed or poorly constructed, and began falling apart. Others became severely weathered, and either broke down or were damaged. The trees became overgrown. Erosion took hold. Vandals did their work, and few families remained to come and care for graves.
In the 1980s, local Georgetown residents began to revive Oak Hill Cemetery. Donations were made, the arboretum pruned and restored, and work undertaken to stabilize some of the mausoleums and larger tombs. Security was enhanced, and the public invited in to see Oak Hill as a place for quiet walks, picnics, and contemplation rather than a musty horror to be avoided. But income was sorely needed. So in 2000, Oak Hill created new burial space by installing double-depth concrete crypts over which new slate walks were installed. This created a limited number of new interment spaces. Since more people today are willing to cremate, the cemetery created a huge number of new steps, walks, and staircases for the burial of ashes. In some cases, remains are buried in a niche below the step; in others, the remains are buried beneath small memorial stones to either side of the step. New burials are occurring at Oak Hill for the first time in decades, and the income is permitting the cemetery to not only maintain the grounds very well but to begin major renovation work on some of the most endangered tombs and mausoleums.
Oak Hill is famous for another reason, too, and it has to do with the American Civil War.
Much more about Oak Hill behind this link...
"Do you ever find yourself talking with the dead? Since Willie's death, I catch myself every day, involuntarily talking with him as if he were with me." - Abraham Lincoln (upon the death of his son)
William Wallace "Willie" Lincoln was born to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln on December 21, 1850. He was their third son, and named for Mary's brother-in-law, Dr. William Wallace. Thomas "Tad" Lincoln was born in April 1853, and Willie and Tad were inseparable playmates. They were also little brats, constantly creating a ruckus around them. Abraham Lincoln completely indulged their rein of terror, and Willie especially was the apple of his eye.
Willie was also studious, well-spoken, precocious, and self-possessed. He had a way of making people laugh when he did wrong, and he often apologized for his poor behavior with a solemness and dignity which won him forgiveness time and again. He seemed to understand adult conversation, and picked up on the serious mood of his parents and those around him easily. He had a vivid imagination, and was a superb writer. He read constantly, and wrote short poems of amazing insight for a little boy. Almost instinctively, he knew how to act in social situations. Once, the nephew of Emperor Napoleon visited the White House and caught Willie and Tad playing in a makeshift fort. Tad blushed and stubbed his toe in the ground while embarrassed adults tried to cough up an explanation. Willie, though, stood up with immense dignity, saluted, and remained at attention until his salute was returned. (The French dignitary was charmed.)
Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in November 1860. The family moved into the White House in March 1861. Willie and Tad fell ill shortly after Christmas in 1861. The cause was most likely typhoid, which they contracted after eating food or drinking water contaminated with fecal matter. The source of such filth wasn't hard to imagine: Mary Todd Lincoln had ordered running water added to the White House at a cost of $4,000 (a huge sum at the time), and this water was drawn directly from the Potomac River -- an open sewer at the time. The B Street Canal, another open sewer (and one which often contained the blaoted, rotting corpses of dead animals), ran just a few blocks south of the White House, and the White House grounds were home to two encampments of Union soldiers and thousands of animals whose manure was collected only irregularly. The children regularly played outdoors unsupervised and ran and played in manure-strewn streets.
Tad recovered from this illness in a few weeks, but Willie gradually weakened. Willie's condition worsened significantly at the beginning of February 1862. Mary Lincoln was constantly at Willie's bedside, and despite the press of civil war business Abraham Lincoln spent hours during the day and night sitting with his child. The best doctor in the city told the Lincolns that Willie was getting better, but he was not. Mary Lincoln held a dinner party at the White House in mid-February, but rushed upstairs to see her child every half hour. Finally, Willie began to sink: He had fevers that soaked the sheets, he lost weight, he had surreal dreams and hallucinations as well as lapses of consciousness. At 5:00 P.M. on February 20, Willie died. Abraham Lincoln wept for nearly an hour, disconsolate. He was so deeply affected that he could not work for three weeks. Mary Lincoln was so distraught that she had to be sedated with laudanum. People actually feared for her sanity, her grief was so overpowering.
The Lincolns' inability to function after Willie's death made things difficult. Most people died at home, not in hospitals, and it was common for a family to allow a loved one to stay on view in a coffin in the living room or a bedroom so that friends and family could pay their respects to the deceased. Funerals were usually held in the home, rarely at church, and grave-side services were incredibly rare. Even accompanying the dead to the cemetery was uncommon. Furthermore, embalming was not very common and it was quite expensive. In cold weather, a body might be kept for three or four days. But in hot weather... a day, at most two, was all that could be permitted before decomposition and smell became an issue. Because Abraham and Mary Lincoln were so incapable of making decisions after the death of Willie, most of the funeral and burial arrangements were made by their friends in Washington.
Senator Orville Hickman Browning of Illinois arrived at the White House to see the President moments after Willie died. The Brownings were old friends of the Lincolns going back to the early 1850s, and Browning immediately sent for his wife, Eliza. Eliza was a strong, intelligent, earthy woman who helped calm Mary Lincoln and get her isolated in her bedroom. Lincoln allowed Senator Browning to make all the arrangements for Willie's funeral. Browning quickly wired Robert Lincoln (then studying at Harvard College in Boston) and ordered him home as fast as he could. Mary's sister, Elizabeth Edwards, then living in Springfield, Illinois, was also sent for. Mary Lincoln was largely kept sedated for the next several weeks. When not sedated, she lay in bed, so overcome with depression she could not speak or move.
Tad, only recently recovered from the same illness that killed Willie, was terrified that death was now coming for him, too. With his mother almost mentally unhinged by the death of Willie, and his father prone to maudlin speeches about Willie's death and bouts of weeping, it was left to Orville Browning to hold the Lincoln household together for the next several weeks. Every day, when the Senate adjourned in the early afternoon, he rushed to the White House. There, he'd spend time talking with Tad, reading to him, or sitting with him until he slept. Often, Browning stayed at the White House until 2 o'clock in the morning.
With hours of Willie's death, Elizabeth Keckley -- the free black woman who was Mrs. Lincoln's seamstress -- washed Willie's body and dressed him in his finest clothes for burial. But Abraham Lincoln despaired that Willie would be buried in the District of Columbia. The family was sure to return to Illinois after Lincoln's presidency ended, and Lincoln did not want to be separated from his child's grave. Yet, Abraham Lincoln did not want Willie shipped to Springfield either. Lincoln had two years remaining in his term, and if he won re-election it might be six years before he could visit his son's burial place. Lincoln simply didn't know what to do.
A solution was quickly found: William Thomas Carroll, a clerk at the Supreme Court, offered to let Willie be buried in the family mausoleum on the "grand bank" in Oak Hill Cemetery. Willie could be embalmed and interred there until the Lincolns left Washington permanently. Not only would it be easy to disinter Willie's body, but Lincoln could come and visit the site any time he wanted. Willie was embalmed on February 21 by the local D.C. firm of Brown and Alexander. Browning, the Lincoln family doctor, and Secretary of Agriculture Isaac Newton watched the process. The undertakers redressed Willie in an old brown suit, white socks, and low-cut shoes. A blue handkerchief was placed in his hand, and a wreath of mignonette (Reseda odorata) was placed on his chest -- in part because the strong, sweet smell would be pleasant and mask the odor of chemicals and decomposition but also because it helped disguise how wasted the little boy's body was.
Willie's body was put on view in the Green Room of the White House. The entire White House was draped in black crepe, all mirrors were covered, the shades drawn, and the chandeliers partly hidden behind black fabric. Willie's casket was a metal one painted to look like rosewood. Benjamin French, the federal commissioner of public buildings, was asked to oversee the funeral and burial.
Willie's funeral was held on February 24 in the East Room, adjacent to where the child's body lay in repose. The Lincolns, accompanied by their son, Robert, came down to say goodbye to their child in mid-morning. It was the first time Mary Lincoln had left her room since Willie's death. She was frail and needed support to walk. The Lincolns went into the Green Room, and shut the door. As they mourned, a thunderstorm struck the city. Lightning repeatedly struck the town, and the wind was so severe that the roofs were blown off a number of homes. Trees were uprooted, several churches had their steeples toppled and windows caved in, the lights went out in the Library of Congress, and the waves on the Potomac River were so high as to almost inundate the Long Bridge. The Lincolns spent a half-hour with Willie's body, then Mrs. Lincoln returned to her bedroom. She would not emerge again for two more days.
Willie's funeral was held at 2:00 P.M. in the East Room. The casket was kept closed to spare Lincoln's feelings. The set-up in the East Room was simple, just a semi-circle of chairs facing a lectern. More than a hundred mourners attended. They included Vice President Hannibal Hamlin and his wife; the entire Cabinet; all the senators and congressmen from Illinois; the Brownings; Senator Lyman Trumbull; and the commander in chief of Union forces, General George B. McClellan (himself only recently recovered from typhoid). The Rev. Dr. Phineas Densmore Gurley of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church presided. The service lasted just a half hour.
At about 2:45 P.M., the funeral cortege left the White House for Oak Hill Cemetery. The six pallbearers that carried Willie's coffin to the horse-drawn hearse were Sunday School friends. Each had white silk wrapped around his hat, and carried a wreath in the crook of one arm. Two white horses pulled the hearse. Abraham and Robert Lincoln followed in a black carriage pulled by black stallions. At Oak Hill Cemetery, Willie's coffin was carried into the chapel. Abraham Lincoln, remarking on the light streaming through the blue stained glass windows, said it made him feel like Willie was resurrected. A few verses of Bible scripture were read, and then the casket was carried across the cemetery to the Carroll mausoleum. Most mourners left, but Abraham Lincoln accompanied the casket to the vault. He had the coffin opened one last time so that he could look on his son's face.
Lincoln visited the Carroll mausoleum again the day after Willie's funeral. He asked the caretakers to remove the marble marker from the wall and open the vault. He then asked them to pull the coffin from the vault, and he opened the casket to look at his son again. Lincoln wept, and then helped the men place the casket in the wall vault again. Lincoln visited the crypt again on March 1, and again had the casket opened. He visited twice more in March, unable to say goodbye. For two months after Willie's death, Abraham Lincoln would seclude himself in the Prince of Wales Room (Willie's bedroom) on Thursday at 5:00 P.M. and weep uncontrollably for an hour. Mary Todd Lincoln remained in bed for weeks, sedated. For months thereafter, she remained in her room, periodically bursting into such rages of grief that sedation had to be used again and again. Elizabeth Edwards stayed with the Lincolns for two months. Unable to stand the atmosphere of depression any longer, she left. Abraham Lincoln pleaded with Dorothea Dix, the head of the army nursing corps, to send someone to care for his wife. Dix sent Mrs. Rebecca Pomroy, a deeply religious woman who had lost a husband and two sons, to help. Arriving in April, more than two months after Willie's death, Pomroy found the White House still in deep mourning, the windows and mirrors covered in black crepe, Mrs. Lincoln sedated in bed. For the rest of her life, Mary Todd Lincoln would not set foot in the Prince of Wales Room nor the Green Room, and she suffered from intense migraines that came to her almost weekly.
For the rest of his life, Abraham Lincoln would return occasionally to Oak Hill Cemetery, stand by the Carroll mausoleum, and grieve for his dead son.
After Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln wanted to have her husband buried in Washington, D.C., as she could not bear to have her husband and Willie separated. Robert Lincoln convinced her to have Abraham Lincoln buried in Springfield, Illinois, but only because he also agreed to have Willie's body exhumed and buried alongside him. Willie's casket was quickly disinterred, and father and son traveled together to Springfield aboard the same funeral train.
Leading citizens of Springfield wanted to erect a memorial tomb for Lincoln in the center of town where it could become a national shrine. Mary Lincoln, however, was adamant that her husband be buried at Oak Ridge, which Lincoln had admired as a peaceful place. On May 4, 1865, 19 days after Abraham Lincoln's death, the funeral train finally arrived in Springfield. The two caskets were taken to Oak Ridge Cemetery and placed in the Public Vault. After much discussion, the people of Springfireld agreed to erect a grand tomb for the slain president at Oak Ridge. A new Temporary Vault was constructed in the summer and fall of 1865 to house the two caskets while the Lincoln Tomb was under construction. On December 21, the two caskets were moved from the Public Receiving Vault to the Temporary Vault. (The body of Lincoln's other dead son, Edward Baker Lincoln, was placed there eight days earlier. Eddie, born March 10, 1846, died February 1, 1850, of pneumonia. Eddie was buried at Hutchinson Cemetery in Springfield.)
Tad Lincoln died of pneumonia on July 15, 1871, at the age of 18. With the Lincoln Tomb nearing completion, Tad's body was interred in the unfinished tomb on July 17. Abraham, Willie, and Eddie's caskets were moved there on September 19. The tomb is a circular room inside the memorial, accessed by corridors from the entrance rotunda. On the south wall of the burial room, between these two corridors are three wall crypts. Abraham Lincoln's casket was placed inside a white sarcophagus, and Willie and Eddie were interred in separate wall crypts.
In 1876, Chicago gang leader and counterfeiter James "Big Jim" Kennally planned to steal Lincoln's body and hold it for ransom until his engraver, Benjamin Boyd, was released from prison and he'd been paid $200,000. The four men hired to steal the remains easily broke into the tomb by cutting the single padlock and unsealing the sarcophagus by breaking its plaster-of-paris seals. But they couldn't move the heavy lead-lined coffin, and were later apprehended.
Panic-stricken, four Springfield men who helped maintain the tomb quietly moved Lincoln's coffin into the basement of the tomb to hide it from grave robbers. The night after the robbery attempt, they tried to dig a grave in the basement but hit water immediately. So they set the coffin on the ground and covered it with scraps of lumber left over from the tomb's construction. Two years later, a dry corner of the basement room was located. Lincoln's coffin was reburied on November 18, 1878, a few inches below the floor. The only person they told about the body's location was Robert Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln died on July 16, 1882, and was interred in one of the wall crypts on July 19. On the night of July 21, on the instructions of Robert Lincoln, the four men reburied her casket in the basement.
An underground spring flowing beneath the Lincoln Tomb site and severe design deficiencies made the structure unsafe. In 1884, part of the vault below the tomb's terrace collapsed. The state of Illinois paid $10,000 to have a copper reinforcing frame added below the terrace. Part of these funds were used to construct a brick vault in the basement. Although the brick vault was complete by 1885, it was not until April 1887 that Abraham and Mary Lincoln were interred within it. (To dispel rumors that Lincoln's body had, in fact, been stolen, the coffin was opened by the four men to personally inspect the corpse.)
Robert Lincoln's son, Abraham Lincoln II, died of pneumonia at the age of seven and was interred in one of the family crypts on November 8, 1890. His body was later disinterred and buried at Arlington National Cemetery with his father on May 27, 1930.
An architectural inspection of the Lincoln Tomb in 1899 revealed massive structural deficiencies. The obelisk jutting from the tomb was so heavy that it had sunk 15 feet through the earth and clay beneath the structure. It finally hit bedrock, and only then stopped sinking. To restore the obelisk, it was made taller. The footings beneath the terrace, Memorial Hall, and the burial chamber all had to be dug out, removed, and replaced. Reconstruction began in 1900, and all burial remains in the tomb were moved to the Temporary Vault. Concerned that another robbery attempt might be made, Robert Lincoln asked that his father's remains be encased in a steel cage and covered in cement before permanent reburial. He agreed to pay $700 to have this done. So a 10-foot-deep shaft was dug slightly behind the planned location of the sarcophagus in the Lincoln Tomb. A boulder was placed at the bottom of the shaft. On April 24, 1901, Willie, Eddie, Tad, and Mary Lincoln were removed from the Temporary Vault and reinterred in crypts in the Lincoln Tomb. Abraham Lincoln remained in the Temporary Vault. His remains were removed in mid-September 1901 for placement in the steel cage. The cage-encased coffin was lowered into the shaft on September 26, 1901. Cement was poured over the coffin until it was completely covered. The floor of the burial chamber was then restored, sealing off the burial shaft.
Another architectural inspection of the Lincoln Tomb in March 1929 revealed yet more problems. Water had corroded most of the metal anchors holding the stones of the memorial in place, and much of the mortar was damaged or missing. Ice damage to many stones had caused them to deteriorate to the point of structural weakness, and the terrace was leaking so badly that water had collected below and undermined the foundations. A second, massive $180,000 reconstruction began in the spring of 1930. Almost immediately, however, a major problem was discovered. The monument was not actually constructed of granite, but of brick clad in granite. The moment the granite cladding was removed, it was discovered that most of the brick substructure had decomposed to the point of structural collapse. State officials had to dismantle the entire memorial and rebuild it from the ground up. (As they did so, they found numerous construction errors and design deficiencies.)
The bodies of Mary, Eddie, Willie, and Tad Lincoln were removed during the 1930 reconstruction. Because the Temporary Vault had been dismantled, their bodies were placed in the Oak Ridge Cemetery mausoleum, near the burying ground's south gate.
The Lincoln Tomb interior was radically redesigned before the memorial was rebuilt. Gone was the rectangular Memorial Hall full of curios and memorabilia. It was replaced with a rotunda. The entrance to the burial vault in the north side of the tomb was replaced with a window, and two interior passages created to replace the single one that previously existed. Instead of brick and granite walls, the interior walls were now marble, framed with bronze pilasters. The ceilings were also marble, with gold and silver leaf decorations. New interior decorations such as bronze shields, gold stars, bronze grillwork in a cornstalk motif, niches containing statuary, bronze tablets with Lincoln quotations, and a bust of Lincoln were added. The original white marble sarcophagus was replaced with a new red granite one from Arkansas. (The white sarcophagus was destroyed by vandals, who carted off most of its pieces for souvenirs. The remaining pieces were stored in the tomb.)
The family's bodies were returned to their crypts in June 1931. Willie Lincoln was finally at rest...........
But there is nothing in the Carroll mausoleum in Oak Hill Cemetery to mark his early grave. There is no inscription, no plaque, no empty crypt.
Nothing but memory.