Oak Hill Cemetery

Founded 1849

Without a doubt, Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery is certainly the most beautiful and among the most historically important cemeteries in Washington.  Like any good diva, it is eminently aware of both these things.  It is a stunning place, but serves today also as a case-study in both the production and exclusions that have made such a site possible.

Established in the mid-nineteenth century, on the inspiration of the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, Oak Hill is a major monument of the rise of the picturesque landscape movement in America, associated with landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing.  The first “rural cemetery” in Washington, it is the project of William Wilson Corcoran, among the most influential and wealthiest of Washington citizens during the 19thcentury.  Its architecture is as cosmopolitan and connected as the people it houses.

Next to its characteristic gatehouse is an exquisite Gothic Revival chapel designed by James Renwick.  Renwick also designed the first building of the Smithsonian Institution (the Smithsonian “Castle”), as well as the space which first housed Corcoran’s art collection (today known as the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery).  The same Seneca Red sandstone that graces Renwick’s other buildings, and much else of the best of later 19th century Washington architecture, can be found in the structures of Oak Hill.  But it is not just material and patronage that ties Oak Hill to the established power structure, but also its very location. It stands among other still-commodious land parcels of upper Georgetown, notably Dumbarton Oaks to the west and Evermay to the south.

In this age of hyper-capitalism and amid DC’s booming real estate market, the relative timelessness and almost palpable serenity that is maintained in these places is striking, and already a notable historical feature to them. Rather than succumb to market-forces (as we are sometimes told by neo-liberal commentators is inevitable to pretty much everything), these three places have, in different ways, internalized capital to maintain their original selves.  Oak Hill, in this, has been far more successful than Corcoran’s other main enterprises, the Riggs Bank and Corcoran Gallery of Art, which after more than a century no longer exist, both victims of their own mismanagement as well as the demands of modern times.  Looking at Oak Hill today in light of our present historical situation, sheds some light on what survives these days, and just how the seeming past is preserved.

Oak Hill has always been the preserve of well-to-do and connected Washingtonians: politicans, government functionaries, military leaders, diplomats, celebrities, captains of industry.   It is an archive of who did well, and the artistic beauty of its varied monuments testifies to that.  It includes statuary by Augustus St. Gaudens, sculptor of the “American Renaissance” as well as a rare monument by Lewis Comfort Tiffany, king of Art Deco. Oak Hill is also what might be called a “destination cemetery” as several monuments were moved to it from elsewhere, a sort of trading up in the afterlife.  Several of these came from nearby Volta Park, but also among them is the huge Grecian-inspired rotunda of John Peter Van Ness, DC mayor during the 1830s. He died in 1846, before Oak Hill existed.  His remains and mausoleum were moved to Oak Hill much later, in 1872, now seeming eternal at the top of a gentle rise.  Perhaps most characteristic of the continuing tensions of power and representation is another story.  Philip and Katharine Graham represent two generations of owners of the Washington Post, Washington’s unrivaled herald of political power.  They are buried in simple graves in the shadow of the Renwick chapel. Yet soon after the recent death of Ben Bradlee, general editor under Ms. Graham, his remains were enshrined in an entire mausoleum, on the cemetery’s main drive, an affront to preservationists and breach of applicable land use laws.  DC almost immediately changed the land use laws, but in the meantime the public was allowed a view of how an institution maintains itself and its funding base.  The present has a way of managing the past.

Enshrining and eternalizing the powerful, of course, also means going along with the power structure of the times, not least in its then-dominant assumptions about race.  It is not clear that a single African-American is buried in Oak Hill.  For a striking contrast of continuing racial inequality one need only look right next to Oak Hill.  On its southeastern edge, the elegant, contemplative spaces of Oak Hill are separated from two African American burial grounds in shocking disrepair.

As the New York Times described it in 2016 “On one side is Oak Hill, a lush slope of well-tended graves of congressmen, publishers and cabinet members who were, with few exceptions, white. On the other side is the Mount Zion and Female Union Band Society Cemetery. There, broken gravestones lie in large piles and dogs and their owners have taken the place of mourners for the slaves, freedmen and mostly black citizens buried below.”  The current overseer of Oak Hill was asked whether he had ever seen a ghost at the cemetery.  His answer was “No. Everybody at Oak Hill is happy.  What better place could there be?”  But the boundaries of the cemetery are then also the boundaries of such eternal happiness.  This surely explains why so many have clamored to get in and jockeyed for position within, but is also a doleful contrast to other available venues and the racial structure they embody.