"Subversive cards and other awesome sh*t,” read artist Katie Novak’s business card at the Go West Craft Fest at The Woodlands Cemetery, 4000 Woodland Avenue, a gathering with the liveliness of a Bruegel painting, splashed with light and laughter and layered with the scent of organic edibles and spring buds, against a backdrop of tombstones. “Why not send something mildly offensive?” the card went on. The Donald Trump series by Novak, 34, might rile a few folks. Then again, some permanent residents of The Woodlands, a National Historic Landmark District, might have cheered from their graves.
Abolitionist and activist Mary Grew (1813–1896), one of the Woodlands’ permanent residents, probably clapped from the hereafter. Grew helped a small group of black and white women launch the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in December of 1833, days after the American Anti-Slavery Society barred women. Women leaping from their parlors into politics shocked many Philadelphians, and their forming an interracial organization enraged them. Grew, however, was just hitting her stride. She would be bounced from the 1840 World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London for demanding to speak, and later become president of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association.
The names on headstones at this green 54-acre site, with its soft swell of hills, reads like a Who’s Who, or Who Was Who, among 19th- and early 20th-century Philadelphians. Famed controversial realist painter Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) rests here, as does cardiologist Jacob Mendez Da Costa, M.D. (1833–1900), who served as assistant surgeon during the Civil War, where he did one of the earliest studies of anxiety disorders in soldiers, at first called “Irritable Heart.”
The Woodlands’ beginning goes back to 1766, when William Hamilton inherited 356 acres of land in West Philadelphia, then known as Blockley Township. In 1770, Hamilton built a magnificent porticoed house with a view of the Schuylkill River. An Anglophile—a family allegiance brought him to trial for treason twice during the Revolutionary War—he visited England after the war and enlarged his house based on what he’d seen there, transforming it into the country’s first Federalist mansion. Some of the mansion’s rooms have geometric shapes, including his drawing room, America’s first oval office.
A genial host, Hamilton welcomed to his home the likes of Thomas Jefferson, who declared it “. . . the only rival I have known of what may be seen in England.” Hamilton wowed guests not only with architecture, but also with his art collection and greenhouse. He collected more than 9,000 native and imported plants. In 1813, when Hamilton died, the country lost one of its premier botanists.
Regularly scheduled tours of the mansion are available Thursdays, April through October, at 10 a.m., 12 p.m., and 2 p.m.; $10 per person, $8 for seniors. See upcoming themed Second Saturday Tour information at http://woodlandsphila.org/events-calendar.
Between 1813 and 1840, the Hamilton family died out and grew poor, and the property was at risk of being industrialized. In 1840, a group of foresighted Philadelphians formed The Woodlands Cemetery Company to save the remaining acres of Hamilton’s estate to “ . . . preserve the beautiful scenery from destruction and maintain the parklike green space . . . ,” according to the articles of incorporation. Members of the company—which included William H. Moore (1804–1887), who directed the funerals of Presidents Harrison, Taylor, and John Quincy Adams—had the cemetery laid out in the Rural Cemetery style of meandering pathways and ornate monuments.
Today The Woodlands seems to meet a human need for lush green healing quiet, to the tune of 40,000 visitors a year. “People run and do recreational walking on our paths, including employees from adjacent hospitals,” said Emma Max, 29, program and operations manager. “We have few cars, so lots of kids ride here without their training wheels for the first time.” Cold weather doesn’t stop activity. With the help of REI and the Sierra club, The Woodlands hosts a free snowshoeing event in winter.
The cemetery’s founders would have delighted in visitors’ interaction with nature. Bernard Brown, 41, a government employee and long-time West Philadelphian, recently led a wildlife walk at the cemetery. “There are foxes, groundhogs, and resident and migratory birds,” said Brown, who writes for Grid. “On the walk I hoped that people would gain an appreciation for the wildlife that lives around them and the awareness that even in an urban park or cemetery there are opportunities to engage with nature. People seemed engaged and had lots of questions.”
A kind of exchange also takes place between the quick and the dead. For instance, some Masterman U.S. history students choose a permanent resident and do a yearlong study of that person. They give public presentations at the year’s end.
Executive director Jessica Baumert, 40, has deepened that dialogue by partnering with cultural institutions to bring the interests of The Woodlands residents to the lives of visitors. Ezra Cresson (1838–1926) devoted himself to the study of insects and founded the American Entomological Society in 1860. On The Woodlands’ annual Firefly Night, families picnic, watch a firefly-inspired aerial performance by Tangle Movement Arts, and learn from insect experts.
The robust Grave Gardening Program adds to the “conversation.” Some graves have a bathtub, or cradle, shape where one may plant flowers. “Each of the 130 volunteer gardeners receives a grave assignment and a list of plants that relates to The Woodlands in Victorian times,” said Emma Max.
“I plant flowers on the grave of Dr. David Jayne [1799–1860],” said Mary McGettigan, a West Philadelphian in her 60s. “At first, Dr. Jayne was a country doctor in New Jersey, then he moved to Philadelphia and amassed a fortune by making medicinal tonics. I plant gentian and spearmint because he used them in his remedies,” she said, and touched a mint leaf. “I grew up in the neighborhood, and I like coming here. My father’s buried here.”
Baumert has more plans for The Woodlands. “Amenities are being added to allow for more visitors and larger events,” she said. “We’re always looking for public-event help and general site-greening volunteers to assist in bringing plans to fruition.”
The cemetery’s founders would take pride in The Woodlands’ achievements. “We won a Grand Jury Award this year from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia for the restoration of the Hamilton Mansion and stable,” Max said. More than that, the Woodlands has won a place in many Philadelphians’ hearts.