The Missing Namesake Of North Philly’s Lost Necropolis

October 21, 2014 | by Harry Kyriakodis


Traces of Monument Cemetery on Broad Street at Temple University | Photo: Harry Kyriakodis

Editor’s Note: This is the second in an October series on Philadelphia cemeteries.

The last memorial stones of Monument Cemetery, about two dozen grave markers, reveal themselves at low tide on the western bank of the Delaware River under the Betsy Ross Bridge, a strange and unnerving sight (see them in this Hidden City photo gallery, HERE). Several thousand other grave markers may be on the opposite bank of the river, submerged. But what of the grand monument the cemetery was named for?

Monument Cemetery was the city’s second largest Victorian era rural cemetery–designed for strolling and reflection. Laurel Hill Cemetery was the largest; Woodland Cemetery is another Philadelphia burial ground of this type. Established before the consolidation of the city, in 1837, the cemetery was situated in what was the far northern reaches of Philadelphia–15th Street and Montgomery Avenue today.

Monument Cemetery

Monument Cemetery’s original proprietor, John A. Elkinton, eloquently described his new bucolic burial ground during a commencement speech in 1839:

The plan of the Monument Cemetery contemplates improvements of the most extensive kind, in which the skill of the architect and taste of the gardener are equally called into requisition. Trees wave their shady branches and flowers scatter their fragrance over the whole scene. The weeping willow and the dark cypress mourn in unison over the graves around; and the modest blossoms that expand and perish, forever remind man that, like them, he is passing away. The unostentatious and silent lessons of mortality, are taught by every thing that meets the eye. The winds sigh a requiem among the foliage of the trees, while the birds singing in their branches render adoration and praise to the Great Disposer of all events—the Supreme Arbiter of life and death. We cannot but believe that this Cemetery will soon be one of the choice spots in the vicinity of our city, to which the stranger will direct his steps with as much eagerness as to the famous Pere La Chaise of Paris, or the wonderful Scutari near Constantinople.

This photograph shows the removal of the monument of Monument Cemetery on June 6, 1956. | Temple University Urban Archives.

The removal of the monument of Monument Cemetery on June 6, 1956. | Temple University Urban Archives.

Elkington named his cemetery Père Lachaise.

Eventually, after the Civil War, officials installed a 70 foot high obelisk in memory of George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette, two Revolutionary War heroes revered in Philadelphia (Lafayette had visited Philadelphia in 1824, on a hero’s tour), and renamed the cemetery for the monument. Resembling a miniature version of the Washington Monument later erected in Washington, DC, the work was designed by John Sartain, the famed Philadelphia engraver, publisher, and architect.

Urban Renewal

A Père Lachaise or not, Monument Cemetery–and its great obelisk–endured as the city grew around it. Talk of removing the cemetery–a common practice in the urban development of the city–began in the late 1920s, about the time that the place was considered “full.” The matter became pressing after World War II and the G.I. Bill, when Temple University, courting commuters, needed parking.

In his book Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries, Thomas H. Keels asserts that Temple launched a campaign to remove Monument Cemetery, considering it to be both an eyesore and a moral blight. But even though the cemetery was unkempt like many of Philadelphia’s 19th century burial grounds, it was not abandoned. Its owners fought against Temple’s plans and hoped to sell the property to another cemetery company.

Monument dump site

Monument Cemetery dump site under the Betsy Ross Bridge | Photo: Michael Bixler

The City and the university won out, however. The land’s value was rising and Philadelphia, through its assertive Planning Commission and Redevelopment Authority, aggressively sought to remake the city. In 1955-56, the City removed the graves and deeded the land to Temple, for ballfields and parking lots.

Some 28,000 bodies were re-interred at Lawnview Cemetery at 500 Huntingdon Pike in Montgomery County. About 300 of these 28,000 bodies were reburied with their original tombstones because family members could be located. Yet the rest of the headstones and other decorative stonework of Monument Cemetery—including some impressive works of art by Victorian sculptors—were simply dumped onto the Delaware River near the Philadelphia side of the Betsy Ross Bridge for use as riprap to strengthen the shoreline under the bridge against erosion.

The Obelisk

Sartain’s monument to Washington and Lafayette was erected on May 29, 1869, and, according to plans, was placed in the middle of the burial grounds. It was intended to be the cemetery’s center of attraction in the days when spending a pleasant day at a necropolis was considered both natural and relaxing.

The sculptor adorned the obelisk with several bronze embellishments he devised (along with the monument’s inscriptions), including two nine foot tall bronze medallions with profiles of Washington and Lafayette. According to maps and aerial photos, Monument Square, as it was called, was precisely in the center of the block now surrounding Temple’s Geasey Field near Norris Street.

1862 map showing Monument Cemetery, from Smedley's Philadelphia Atlas, at www.philageohistory.org, and a modern map of the same vicinity, from Goggle Maps.

Right: 1862 map showing Monument Cemetery | Smedley’s Philadelphia Atlas                                                                                                   Left: 2013 digital image of the same vicinity | Goggle Maps

A booklet called Ceremonies on the Completion of the Monument to the Memory of Washington and Lafayette in the Monument Cemetery of Philadelphia (1869) reveals the motivation of cemetery officials for erecting this patriotic memorial. They envisioned the work as a major draw for the public and issued press releases claiming that the granite column would distinguish Monument Cemetery from any other cemetery in the nation. The graveyard’s managers had established a $5,000 reserve fund to pay for the monument. Unfortunately, they repeatedly dipped into the fund for improvements to the grounds, so it was not until 1858 that money was available to purchase the obelisk.

Immortal Washington

The Washington-Lafayette obelisk of Monument Cemetery. From Ceremonies on the Completion of the Monument to the Memory of Washington and Lafayette in the Monument Cemetery of Philadelphia (1869).

The Washington-Lafayette obelisk of Monument Cemetery | Ceremonies on the Completion of the Monument to the Memory of Washington and Lafayette in the Monument Cemetery of Philadelphia (1869)

The president of the cemetery’s managing company proclaimed in Ceremonies on the Completion of the Monument that the memorial was “the only material one in the State, certainly in the City of Philadelphia, in memory of that illustrious man, who by his courage and fortitude as the leader of the army of the American Revolution–his wisdom and prudence as a Statesman, and first President of the United States, and his many virtues as a citizen, so endeared him to his countrymen that by common consent, they conferred upon him the proud title of ‘the father of his country’–Our own immortal Washington!”

Furthermore, the booklet contains an oration by William B. Mann that he recited during the monument’s dedication on May 29th, 1869. Mann followed along in the same patriotic spirit as his preceding speakers, but concluded his oration with what could be interpreted as incidental foreshadowing on the fate of the cemetery and the monument he praised:

The wasting hand of time will efface these inscriptions; the neglect of those who come after us may fail to renew them; the stones that constitute this pile may become a heap of ruins; our proudest memorials may fall into decay, and perish from the earth; “When water-drops have worn these stones away, And blind oblivion swallowed cities up;” let us fondly hope that even then the great fabric of Constitutional Government erected by our forefathers shall continue to exist from age to age, the proudest and most enduring monument of the name and fame of those great benefactors of mankind, who will only be forgotten when liberty has no altar, or freedom no votary to worship at its shrine.

The shrine, however, is lost. Most likely, Sartain’s obelisk was callously smashed to bits before being dumped along the Delaware River with many of the other memorial stones from Monument Cemetery. Any information about its fate would be well received.