In the center of Georgetown, lying along Rock Creek, a neighbor of Dumbarton Oaks (where John C. Calhoun lived while in the Senate) and of 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. W.W. Corcoran. Mr. Corcoran was a banker and founder of what is now The Riggs National 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 bank along Rock Creek, and the plotting. James Renwick, Jr., architect of the Smithsonian Building and of the original Corcoran Gallery which is now the Renwick Gallery, designed the iron enclosure 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 19th Century, with emphasis on the great Civil War. The burials and monuments identified on the map are mostly for that period. All lots were sold long ago and, until recently, the only new interments possible were in the few spaces remaining in old family lots. Recently, a new project has been started to renovate the paths and walkways. This is being done by excavating and installing double depth concrete crypts over which new Buckingham slate walks are installed, with appropriate spaces on each side for memorial stones. In this manner, new interment spaces are being made available. Thus Oak Hill will be a neighborhood garden with a continuing history.
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