Oak Hill’s visionary founder, Mr. W.W. Corcoran contributed the land to the Oak Hill Cemetery Company to serve as a place of beauty and inspiration for the living. Our National Historic Places status recognizes the Historic Renwick Chapel for its significance as one of the finest English specimens of old Gothic chapels, with the cemetery itself as a major example of the 19th century romantic movement.
Mr. William W. Corcoran was the founder of the Riggs National Bank also known as “Corcoran & Riggs”, which is now PNC Bank. The bank was most notable for financing Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph and being assigned as the only federal depositary in the Washington. Corcoran & Riggs lent 16 million dollars to the U.S. government to pay for the Mexican-America War in 1847 and in 1868 provided $7.2 million in gold towards the purchase of Alaska. Lastly, other notable financing included Robert Peary’s first expedition to the North Pole and the expansion of the Capitol Building in the 1860s. As a man of real estate and philanthropies such as, the Corcoran Gallery and the Louise home, he also 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 an Act of Congress incorporated the Cemetery Company on March 3, 1849, Mr. Corcoran contributed the land to the Company.
Once the Company was formed, 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, now the Renwick Gallery, designed the iron enclosure and the Historic Chapel (built in 1849). The cemetery represents a natural 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.
Considered a “rural cemetery”, it is among only a few in the nation. The foresight and vision in 1849 by Mr. W.W. Corcoran was bold and innovative. Oak Hill was to be a cemetery to serve as a place for families to bury and commemorate their loved ones, while at the same time it could be designed as a place of great natural beauty and inspiration for the Georgetown community. This concept proved to be a success.
In 1972, the United States Department of the Interior National Park Service designated the Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel (known as the Historic Renwick Chapel) a National Historic Place, recognizing it as the only know example of Renwick’s Gothic Revival church design in Washington, DC and of significance to the cultural heritage and visual beauty of the District of Columbia. The Chapel (which faces west) is about 350 feet east of the gatehouse and lightly to the north, at about the point where 29th Street intersects R Street. The one story, rectangular Chapel is constructed of Potomac gneiss and red sandstone. The Chapel is often referred to as a miniature Gothic gem is an excellent example of Gothic Revival architecture.