Resting Place: A historic West Philadelphia estate becomes a hub for the life—and death—of a community

photos by Ryan CollerdPeering in from the street, the canted headstones and moss-greened marble that are The Woodlands’ most prominent landmarks make the 54-acre estate appear to be just another of Philadelphia’s historic cemeteries. A quick stroll through the grounds, however, reveals a surprising amount of life in this repository for the dead. Even on a gray Wednesday afternoon, a young mother pushes a stroller past the ornate monuments, while a pair of nurses stroll through the grounds during their lunch hour. An unplanned mile-long dirt path attests to the runners who use the site for their daily rounds.

“On a nice day at 5 [p.m.] after work, this place is super-crowded with runners and dog walkers,” Executive Director Jessica Baumert says. “People are starting to utilize the space as a park, and we want them to—with respect, of course.” She adds that they want people to view the estate as a community hub and as a place where they can quickly escape the city.  

The Woodlands began its life as the home of William Hamilton, a prominent 18th-century landowner who rubbed shoulders with many of the country’s Founding Fathers. After inheriting more than 300 acres of land on the west side of the Schuylkill River from his grandfather, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, Hamilton decided to build what became the first fully realized example of Federal architecture—which draws upon classical Roman influences—in the country. Through large gifts from his uncle, former Pennsylvania Gov. James Hamilton, and other small acquisitions, the estate expanded to 600 acres, encompassing most of what is now West Philadelphia, including all of the University of Pennsylvania's campus and almost all of Drexel's.

“Hamilton traveled to England in the early 1780s and saw the new styles of art-collecting and architecture and landscape,” Baumert says. “So, when he came back from England, he made drastic changes to his estate based on what he saw there. A lot of people would visit The Woodlands to see this new style of architecture or this new plant for the first time. … He was definitely a tastemaker.”

The estate’s core 90 acres were landscaped in the English country garden fashion, with several plants and trees that Hamilton was responsible for introducing to North America. While most of those plantings have been lost over the years, several trees still stand from his time, including a massive Caucasian zelkova that may be the only one of its type in the state, and a grove of seven English elms that somehow survived a blight of Dutch elm disease and are now, according to Baumert, “a cathedral for tree people.”

Hamilton died a bachelor with no children in 1813, so his land was divided up between nieces and nephews who sold it off piecemeal over the next few decades. The core 90 acres, which included the mansion, were purchased in 1840 by the Woodlands Cemetery Company, a group of men who had pooled resources to save the site from encroaching development. 

“When Hamilton was alive, this was known to be one of the most significant places in the city and in the region,” Baumert says. “The cemetery being founded here was always as much a preservation effort as it was a business venture.”

More than 30,000 people are buried in the Woodlands Cemetery today, including several notables from the city: painter Thomas Eakins and his famed subject, Dr. Samuel Gross; architect Paul Philippe Cret; financier Francis Martin Drexel; and abolitionist Mary Grew. For some time, The Woodlands competed with Laurel Hill Cemetery, founded two years earlier, to entice the city’s most famous residents to repose within their gates. 

“From a business perspective, getting famous people buried in your cemetery was the best advertising you could do,” Baumert says.

In the early 19th century, as the Industrial Revolution swallowed up huge swathes of green space in urban centers, and before the widespread establishment of public parks, cemeteries took on a key role as public getaways and gathering spaces for city residents. That role has changed as parks have become more formalized and American attitude toward death more distanced; but that original communal role has reemerged as a model for historic cemeteries unable to continue to turn a profit as space becomes scarce—and as law made it harder for historic cemeteries to generate revenue from past sales. One of the prime movers behind The Woodlands Cemetery Company was Eli K. Price (now buried there with a suitably ornate memorial), who was also one of the founders of Fairmount Park.

“The way we deal with death has changed, and there are a lot of people who won’t step foot into a cemetery,” Baumert says. “As burial practices change, a lot of cemeteries that have a strong history behind them are becoming cultural destinations as much as—or in many cases more than—selling cemetery lots. We’re lucky to also have this fascinating layered history that connects with West Philadelphia in a really fun way, so we’re trying to create an environment that allows people to think differently and more three-dimensionally about it.”

The Woodlands is now operated by two nonprofits: the Cemetery Company and another arm that handles fundraising, preservation, community outreach and educational programs. After having acreage seized by eminent domain for the construction of the hospital and University Avenue, the estate shrunk to its current 54 acres, now protected as a National Historic Landmark District. Baumert and her small staff are currently planning more ways to expand the site’s accessibility, including restoration efforts to the house and grounds, research on Hamilton and The Woodlands’ history and hosting more events, such as the Go West! Craft Fest.

That new thinking includes initiatives, such as the 18-bed community garden established by local residents in 2009. Erica Smith Fichman, program manager for TreePhilly, joined with several “stalwart West Philly green people” to establish the garden. “For me, the Woodlands is just another friendly open space, but one that’s a little more unique than the local park,” Smith Fichman says. “The community garden is 50 percent about having a little space in the ground to plant and 50 percent about the social aspect.”

The mansion is also a resource for The Woodlands’ preservation efforts. Starting in the spring, weekly drop-in tours of the house are offered on Wednesdays and occasional weekends, with group tours available by appointment. With all of Hamilton’s belongings having long since been sold off, the mansion is largely an empty shell, which presents the opportunity to host events in the interior with no threat of damage to valuable collections. 

Rachel and Matt Allison took advantage of that last spring, as the first wedding to take place at The Woodlands since the 1990s. “It’s historic and rustic and kind of run-down in a really unique way, so we didn’t have to do very much to make the place look beautiful," Rachel says. 

Since the nuptials, she has continued to revisit The Woodlands on a regular basis. “Once you’re on the grounds, you feel so removed from the bustle right outside those gates. I think it’s a great oasis for people like me who like living in the city, but want there to be some quiet every now and then.”

story by Shaun Brady