Dead Spaces come Alive at Laurel Hill Cemetery

Halloween is boom-season for Laurel Hill Cemetery, with its Gravedigger’s Ball gala, RIP 5K Run, and tours drawing on the site’s architectural history, beautifyl landscape, and pithy characters. But Laurel Hill is a Philadelphia treasure every day of the year.

John Notman designed Laurel Hill’s picturesque landscape as one of the first garden cemeteries 175 years ago. Today Laurel Hill’s 78 acres are remarkably beautiful: Its meandering roads and paths are planted with mature trees, and the landscape is dotted with unique art and architecture. Even though Laurel Hill is wedged between Kelly Drive, Ridge Avenue, Fairmount Park and railroad tracks, its perch overlooking Schuylkill feels like a space apart, timeless and serene.

Laurel Hill has less space to inter people these days, so rather than face obsolescence, the cemetery is pursuing a future as Philadelphia’s Underground Museum.

Laurel Hill invites people into the cemetery for passive recreation and casual sightseeing, much Victorian-era Philadelphians used the cemetery for picnics and carriage rides. Today, curious visitors will spot specimen trees as well as the names of Philadelphia’s well-heeled citizens (think Rittenhouse and Fitler) on grand mausoleums designed by great architects of their day. Visitors can also dig deeper into Philadelphia’s past through Laurel Hill’s thematic tours, focusing on stories about the cemetery’s notorious, forgotten, and accomplished residents. Right now there’s even a Harry Kalas exhibit running.

So rather than seeing Laurel Hill as dead space, think of it as a National Historic Landmark, outdoor sculpture garden, arboretum, and place for recreation. As in the Victorian era, Laurel Hill is much a place for the living as for those resting in peace.

Our very own James Robertson, checked out the RIP 5K Run earlier this month, and created this Eyes on the Street video vignette:

Laurel Hill is open daily until 4:30pm, and admission is free.

Laurel Hill’s November tours look toward politics with a tour on November 3 of the Mayors of Philadelphia, and on November 6 about Philadelphia’s Political Bosses. A Veteran’s Day Tour on November 10, and Thanksgiving tour of Philly’s notable philanthropists on November 19 round out the month. Ticket prices vary per tour.

Want more?

Read JoAnn Greco’s piece on Laurel Hill, Building a City of the Dead, on PlanPhilly. [December 31, 2010]

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