Woodlands Cemetery and the Legacy of Longwood Gardens

My second trip to Woodlands Cemetery was especially successful (see posting of 8/25/2013)IMG_5946.  Not only was the gate open, I just happened to pick a Wednesday which was the only day they have tours of the Hamilton Mansion.  I was even there just minutes before a tour started, every hour on the hour, and I was the only one, so I got the full attention of Lauren, an eager, young Penn student, studying, as the best I can remember, something like historic preservation.

The tour.  As is obvious from the outside, the mansion is being maintained, not restored.  Inside, it is an empty shell and only the ground floor is open to visitors.  The small amount of money they have available is used for basic survival, like keeping the roof and windows repaired.  To restore it to its former glory would take far more money, more than could ever be raised by fees alone.  It would have to come from a foundation or a corporate sponsor.

The fee for the tour was $8 which was well worth the enthusiasm of Lauren.  I would have been happy to contribute $8 to keep the place going with no tour at all, and Lauren was icing on the cake.  The area is in the shadow of the huge hospitals where just one lobby cost more than it would take to restore the mansion to tip-top shape.  Too bad none of the hospitals are inclined to associate themselves with a nearby cemetery.

The cemetery.  It is a great lesson on the impermanence of all things.  Many of the monuments from the early 1800s have weathered away to illegibility.  You can imagine families gathered around hugely expensive monuments and mausoleums, grieving, but proud of the eternal legacy they have provided.  Eternal?  Forever?  Always?   In only two hundred years, the monuments have eroded.  Time, as always, has completely taken away the attachments  and emotions that had once defined the dead, leaving only names and dates, and now even those have often disappeared.  Today, we use more durable granite and bronze, but the eventual result is still the same.

One huge obelisk, the largest monument in the cemetery by far, marks the grave of Dr. Thomas Evans, 1823–1897.  Who is he?  A dentist.  He did contribute the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Dental Medicine, and for that he will be remembered, not for the ridiculous phallic obelisk put up by his descendents.  If they had put up a giant tooth instead of an obelisk, at least it would have kitsch appeal.

I was constantly reminded of Pierre du Pont’s far superior legacy of Longwood Gardens.  There is no ostentatious monument to him, no statue that would someday be pulled down, as all are, eventually.  Even his family grave in Delaware is hidden from the public.  His Longwood house remains, and it attracts visitors by its simple beauty and humanity that reflects the person behind it.  Once inside, they are naturally drawn to seek out more information on the man who lived there.

Pierre du Pont lived in his Longwood house until he died in 1954, and my parents took me to Longwood Gardens before then.  I remember the approach to his house had a low barrier, that anyone could step over, with a simple sign, “No visitors past this point.”  Even while he was living there, he kept the rest of the Gardens open to the public.

That legacy of the inner man will live on far longer with more people than any memory of his amazing accomplishments: the rescue of the DuPont company, followed by his rescue of General Motors.  His goal was never to glorify his name.  He only wanted to create a garden as beautiful as possible and share it with the public.

Longwood Gardens annually draws over a million visitors.  Only a handful stop to see the Dr. Evans obelisk.



About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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