Parapets, Pinnacles and Perpetuity

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Monument Cemetery Gatehouse just before demolition, Broad Street at Berks Street, March 3, 1903.

Philadelphians were dying to get out of town in the 1830s and 1840s—and so were city dwellers just about everywhere. Parisians started the trend, opting for a rural burial at Le Père Lachaise Cemetery before Americans caught the bug. Soon, the living from Boston to Baltimore, Detroit to Dayton, Pittsburgh to Philadelphia transformed romantic rural landscapes into perpetual theme parks for the dead. Or so they thought.

Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery overlooking the Schuylkill River opened in 1836. The following year Monument Cemetery on Broad Street started up. Then came Woodlands in West Philadelphia and the business model took off. Cemeteries selling families plots of picturesque real estate with mellow names like Cedar Hill, Glenwood, Greenwood, Mount Moriah, Mount Peace, and Mount Vernon cropped up all over the unbuilt landscape. Fashionable folk anticipated spending eternity in the peaceful Philadelphia countryside.

One of the founders of Monument Cemetery, the artist John Sartain, planned to reside there after his long and productive life as an engraver. Sartain enjoyed the memory of Broad Street in the 1830s when it was only a lane “narrowed in still further by a ditch on either side, behind which was a post-and-rail fence, the boundary of adjacent fields.” He sketched a design for a Gothic gatehouse to welcome both permanent residents and short-term visitors.

But Broad Street was no country lane. Anticipating that its boulevard-like width should carry northward from the built-up city as far as the eye could see, cemetery managers agreed to set back their gatehouse “provided the other land owners on both sides of the street would do the same” and plant “a double row of trees along each sidewalk.” And Broad Street, Sartain later recalled, was “widened to its present breadth…extending this noble avenue thirteen miles in length, straight as a ray of light.” There, behind his “Gothic parapet and pinnacles,” Sartain expected to reside for eternity.

“Chapel and principal entrance to the Monument Cemetery, Philadelphia,” 1850. (Library Company of Philadelphia.)

But as long as there is life, there are compromises.

While away in Europe, Sartain’s gatehouse was “spoiled by a member of the board of managers…a carpenter…who considered that every building must have a projecting cornice.”  Away went Sartain’s Gothic roofline and up came Italianate woodwork. As Sartain bluntly put it in his memoir titled, The Reminiscences of a Very Old Man, “my original design is now travestied.”

That would hardly be the least of it—or the last of it. Only six years after Sartain was buried beneath his brownstone monument topped by a sphinx, the city extended Berks Street and demolished the gatehouse—after documenting it front (illustrated) and back. Now transected by a tree-lined Berks Street, Monument Cemetery filled with up with Sartain’s relatives and about 28,000 others. In 1929, the last lot-holder was laid to rest.

Rest in peace? Not on your life. At Monument Cemetery, there would be irony in the mourning. By the 1950s, as we’re graphically informed here and there, Monument Cemetery’s real estate would be reclaimed for parking by the adjacent, expanding Temple University. Cranes lifted caskets and coffins which made their way to Lawnview Cemetery in suburban Rockledge. Headstones and monuments, however, including the one Sartain had designed for himself, were carted off to another form of finality, as landfill on the banks of the Delaware River at Brideburg, not far from where the Betsy Ross Bridge would soon rise.