“Look Up” is a feature of PlanPhilly that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. Each week, the photo essay will focus on a different Philadelphia area neighborhood and its distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.
By Alan Jaffe
Great architecture is not limited to the dwellings of the living. At West Laurel Hill Cemetery, beautiful design is found in the houses of the dead.
The 187-acre cemetery on Belmont Avenue in Bala Cynwyd was incorporated in 1869, after the expansion of Fairmount Park limited the growth of the original Laurel Hill Cemetery, which was created on the east banks of the Schuylkill in 1836. The first burial in West Laurel Hill was in 1870, and the serene landscape of the new cemetery soon welcomed crowds of visitors escaping the confines of the city.
From the turn of the century through the 1930s, many of the region’s wealthiest families chose West Laurel Hill as their final resting place, and they erected stately and stylish monuments. Clusters of Gothic Revival, Classical, Egyptian Revival, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, and Art Deco mausoleums arose on the rolling hills of the burial ground.
West Laurel Hill, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, remains an active cemetery administered by two funeral homes and overseen by a board of directors that includes relatives of the original founders. Its markers and memorials are beautifully maintained by permanent endowments. Notable Philadelphians buried there include artist Alexander Calder, condensed soup inventor John Thompson Dorrance, baseball pioneer Bemjamin Shibe, and hat maker John Stetson.