Thursday, October 22, 2015

OOPS!! It turns out that Ben Bradlee's mausoleum at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown is in big trouble. Bradlee died last year, and the family constructed a massive new mausoleum on the ellipse which forms the entrance to Oak Hill.

But the Cultural Landscape Foundation (CLF) was not amused. It argued that the mausoleum changed the fundamental nature of the cemetery. Although architects originally decided the mausoleum did not need a building permit, the CLF appealed that decision -- and the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs agreed.

The decision came the same day Bradlee was interred (on October 21).

Oak Hill Cemetery has not changed much since it was established in 1848. An ellipse was built at the entrance of the cemetery to provide a peaceful tapis verdt in front of the Renwick Chapel. Mausoleums began being built there (on spec, even!) in 1855, but none have been erected since the 1960s. By that time, Oak Hill was largely full, with more than 20,000 burials there. With the cemetery in serious disrepair in the early 1990s, space for new interrals had to be found. New pathways and staircases were cut into the cemetery's hills, which not only provided better access but also allowed double-deep burial sites to exist under each step, and inurnments on either side of each step. The 100-niche Willow Columbarium was completed in December 2011, eliminating a dumping ground.

In 2010, the cemetery's board of directors agreed to remove a road around the north edge of the ellipse and create eight to ten large mausoleum plots here. These plots would go for a hefty price, as they were visible from the cemetery's main entrance and would be so prominent.

Oak Hill has no process for approving mausoleums, and the city has no permitting mechanism. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts has jurisdiction over mausoleums, but can only invoke this jurisdiction if the D.C. government refers a project to it. The Old Georgetown Board, the federal commission which oversees structural designs in Georgetown, has no jurisdiction, either.

The Bradlee family did not consult with Oak Hill when it began designing Ben Bradlee's mausoleum. Architect Stephen Muse (a member of the Old Georgetown Board) designed the structure. Oak Hill cut a pathway directly across the ellipse to provide access to it.

The large size of the mausoleum, it's stark color, the way it clashes with the Gothic Revival Renwick Chapel (which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places), and the extreme impact it had on the entrance to Oak Hill Cemetery led the CLF to challenge the lack of permitting with the city.

Meanwhile, Oak Hill Cemetery said it will not back off its attempt to create new places for burial. In a direct and caustic slap at Congressional Cemetery (in the Barney Circle neighborhood across town), Oak Hill's chairman said the cemetery is "not ready for ghost tours and dog-walking".

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