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  • Tales from the Crypt: Cemetery-Related Notes on Library Company of Philadelphia Research
  • Aaron Wunsch (bio)

Asking scholars to discuss their aims, methods, and discoveries is a risky proposition, like pointing a telescope at your navel. Will anyone want to see the view? Years ago a colleague of mine, fresh from a prestigious fellowship [End Page 286] that required him to attend endless academic mixers, captured the problem with this piece of self-mockery: “But enough about me; let’s talk about my work.” Despite the risks, my essay does just that. It summarizes insights I have gained about the genesis of Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery while working with graphic materials at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Those insights will be of particular interest to historians of American architecture and landscape who focus on the early to mid-nineteenth century. But there is a larger historiographic moral to the story, and it is this: study the repository as you study your topic. Archivists and librarians will not be shocked by this injunction, and neither will many historians. If the following case study reinforces an old maxim and enhances interest in one of the richest collections of antebellum visual culture in the United States, then this glance backward through the telescope will (almost) be justified.1

Architectural historians tend to put architects first. When I began researching Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery as an employee of the Historic American Buildings Survey some fifteen years ago, I quickly discovered that existing scholarship on the site fell into two categories: cultural histories of something called the “rural cemetery movement” and narrower design histories, written by people with training like mine, that explored the work of architect John Notman.2 Laurel Hill, established in 1836, was America’s second major rural cemetery, postdating Boston’s Mount Auburn by five years. Although the differences between the two institutions were marked, their founders shared an interest in burial reform that combined urban civic pride with ideas about health, horticulture, history, class, and family that were as private and sentimental as they were public and scientific. I also learned that the person most responsible for giving architectural form to these impulses at Laurel Hill was John Notman.

Focusing on architects when writing design history isn’t wrongheaded but it can be self-contained and, potentially, self-fulfilling. The scholarship on Notman was generally rigorous and well written. Better still, it fell within my comfort zone. While I quickly perceived that rural cemeteries were complex cultural and material phenomena trailed by disparate business records, drawings, photographs, poems, and diary entries (to name only the most obvious primary sources), it was initially reassuring to know that the story of the cemetery’s creation followed developments in architecture and landscape gardening I had learned about in school and was, at first glance, tidy. It went something like this: Laurel Hill Cemetery took shape on the banks of the Schuylkill River beginning in 1836. The site’s rolling terrain, mature plantings, and river views appealed particularly to John Jay Smith, [End Page 287] the most active promoter of the cemetery plan and the eminent librarian of Philadelphia’s Library Company. He and three like-minded collaborators followed convention by holding a competition for the design of the new institution’s buildings and grounds.3 The winner was John Notman, a recently arrived Scottish carpenter with significant architectural training who vanquished leading local architects Thomas Ustick Walter and William Strickland. The result was an arboretum-like, gardenesque landscape adorned with neoclassical, Gothic, and vaguely Chinese buildings housing various cemetery functions. While Walter was called in, or perhaps volunteered, to improve Notman’s gatehouse drawing, Notman received credit for the project overall, and it effectively launched his nationally important career.4

Notman as lone wolf—or close to it. That story cohered, and it got me through a report for the National Park Service and earned a National Historic Landmark nomination for the cemetery. But there were annoying loose ends. Citing the work of Keith Morgan, historian Constance Greiff suggested that a British architect’s published proposals for Kensal Green Cemetery near London had been available to competition entrants and had influenced...


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pp. 286-298
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