A Brief History

In the center of Georgetown, lying along Rock Creek, a neighbor of Dumbarton Oaks (where John C. Calhoun lived while in the Senate) and of Evermay, is a 19th Century garden park cemetery rivaled only by Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery in graciousness and a sense of community.

The Oak Hill Cemetery was founded by Mr.
W.W. Corcoran. Mr. Corcoran was a banker and co-founder of what was The Riggs National Bank. He may have kept the Union Treasury solvent in the Mexican War by persuading the British to buy U.S. bonds. He was a man of many tastes and philanthropies (e.g. the Corcoran Gallery; the Louise Home). In 1848, Mr. Corcoran purchased 15 acres along Rock Creek from George Corbin Washington (a distinguished lawyer and a great nephew of the First President) and his son Lewis W. Washington. When the Cemetery Company was incorporated by Act of Congress on March 3, 1849, Mr. Corcoran contributed the land to the Company. Captain George F. de la Roche, a master engineer, supervised the grading, including the creation of a grand bank along Rock Creek, and the plotting. James Renwick, Jr., architect of the Smithsonian Building and of the original Corcoran Gallery which is now the Renwick Gallery, designed the iron enclosure and the Chapel (built in 1849) which is a representation of the finest English specimens of old Gothic chapels. The cemetery itself is a major example of the 19th Century Romantic movement, the natural and not formal English garden, an acceptance and blending of nature rather than a geometrical imposition. The greatest American proponent of the natural garden and its application to cemeteries was Andrew Jackson Downing, and there is evidence but no conclusive record that he did the landscape designs of Oak Hill Cemetery. Maintenance of the natural garden is the Cemetery’s greatest tenet.

A significant portion of Oak Hill's history is from the 19th Century and many burials and monuments from that period are identified on the map. Many burial options remain even today though much of the burial space created in the original design was sold some time ago. Projects that renovate various walk-paths and steps include the creation of additional casket and cremation burial sites. Willow Columbarium, completed in 2012, adds over 400 cremation niches, each with space for two urns. There will be an on-going process to add casket and cremation burial options. As a result of the existing and future creative options, Oak Hill Cemetery will have burial space available for decades and decades thus fulfilling its role as a neighborhood garden with a continuing history.

If you would like assistance in researching people buried in Oak Hill, please click here to download a research request form. There is a charge for this service.


View a Video Lecture
Oak Hill's Superintendent
Dave Jackson gave on the history
of Oak Hill in the fall of 2016
at the Smithsonian.

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