Cemetery history written by Douglas Stern and Joan Marchand in 1982
Furnished by Dennis Au
Oak Hill Cemetery is a historic landscaped site developed beginning in 1853 and containing about 175 acres situated 1½ miles to the northeast of Downtown Evansville, Indiana. Bordering the site on its western side is a multi-lane U. S. highway; on other sides is low-scale, modern-era residential and commercial neighborhoods. In spite of this encroachment, the cemetery has preserved its original pastoral tranquility. The Victorian period concern for creating an evocative, contemplative atmosphere has been carefully maintained to the present day, making Oak Hill the city’s premier public burial ground and an important cultural statement.
Oak Hill was the second of Evansville’s platted, public burying grounds and succeeded a small 2 ½ -grave yard opened in the 1830s on the southeast edge of the young village. By mid-century, however, there evidently arose a need for a new public Cemetery and, in a Common Council meeting of 12 August 1850, a committee was appointed to reconnoiter the surrounding countryside for the purpose of finding a new Cemetery site. Within two years, 56 acres had been acquired 1 ½ miles northeast of the town, and by February 1853 lots were offered for sale. The first interment occurred on the 18th of February, and later land purchases (up until 1924) gave the Cemetery its present acreage.
The site selected by the council 120 years ago was, according to a contemporary newspaper account, a “hillock, a wilderness of underbrush and briars, and called at that with a mantle of loess, underlain by sandstone. A 1927 topographical map showing the Cemetery tract depicted the land of the original 1852 purchase as gradually ascending on the south from the floodplain level of 390 feet to a height of 430 feet. On the north end, there was a sharp drop-off. In profile, as viewed particularly from the east, the contour of the hill looked like the back of a two-humped Bactrian camel with a central Erosional vale. The early burials took place on the southern slope, close to the ridge. Today, interment sites not only blanket the entire prominence, but also cover the flat lands at the foot of the hill on three sides. Although the Cemetery comprises 175 acres, less than 120 have been platted and made available for interments. A tract of about 55 acres across the northern part of the Cemetery bordering Morgan Avenue has been farm-leased.
The present Oak Hill plat plan, including the original purchase and the later additions, has been the product through time of various public servants, such as city engineers and surveyors. However, the appearance of the Cemetery landscape—with particular regard to the plantings—was primarily nurtured over an 80-year period (1853-1932) during the tenure of two superintendents. For the first four decades of the Cemetery’s existence (1853-1897), the beautification of the grounds was the responsibility of John S. Goodge. In his obituary (June 1897), he was credited with the “work of making the beautiful place the Oak Hill now is.” Some of the more mature plantings are very likely the result of Goodge’s endeavors. His successor, William Halbrook (1898-1932), brought to his position his knowledge and experience gained as a florist, and a large portion of Oak Hill’s verdancy was the result of his handiwork. Since 1932, some planting has occurred, but not on the scale of the preceding 80 years.
Designed landscape features exploited the strengths of the original site and underscored the prevailing picturesque and melancholy mood of the place. An intricate tracery of crossing and curving pathways (now asphalted, one-lane drives) formed a lacy network which conjoined with the site’s hill and vale topography and natural arborous properties created a picturesque setting for “the sleeping place of our dead,” as one 19th century journalist characterized Oak Hill. The collection of trees comprised native Indiana and American specimens as well as ornamental exotics, and includes: juniper, holly, blue spruce, tulip tree, dogwood, catalpa, sycamore, locust, Japanese ginko, magnolia, and varieties of pine, oak, cedar, maple and willow. There was obvious planning behind the placement of the pathways and plantings and together they formed a complete naturalistic landscape of quiet retreats, vistas and curvilinear movement. Some thought was obviously also given to the selection of the trees, for while time itself seems suspended within the Cemetery, the seasons are chronicled by the changing foliage of the deciduous growth and, in winter, by the evergreens.
In addition to these distinctive plantings and walks, Oak Hill was enhanced by a number of other landscape features. The seclusion which characterizes this burial ground was furthered by the enclosure of its land on three sides by a brick wall and by a single entrance gate located on the south side of the Cemetery. The approach to the main gate was by a 365-foot-long drive which begun at Virginia Street and was bordered on each side by a continuation of the wall. The Mission Revival gateway was also designed by architects Harris and Shopbell in 1901. The overhanging hipped roof was clad with red barrel tiles, and the soffit was coffered. Extensions of the gateway are connected with the brick wall.
Within the Cemetery there were two man-made bodies of water—reflecting pools. To the left of the gateway, in the Western Addition, the central attraction was an oblong lake fed by the city water system and containing a small island. Spaced upon the banks of the lake were temple-style mausoleums of stone erected by some of the city’s most prominent citizens as a last resting place for their family members. The island, connected to the mainland by a stone bridge, was the interment area for the Johnson family whose patriarch, Mead Johnson, founded the Mead Johnson & Company pharmaceutical concern in Evansville, and whose remains were also interred on the island. The round, colonnaded monument of granite was erected for Johnson in 1934. The other pool, also fed artificially, was situated directly behind the Administration Building and was part of the improvement program undertaken in 1899 which saw the construction of this primary building.
Perhaps the most hallowed ground in the Cemetery was the interment sections which contained the remains of soldiers who died in battle or in Evansville hospitals from battle-incurred wounds during the Civil War. The remains of 500 Union men, 24 Confederate soldiers and 98 local dead were buried in three separate sections—all victims of Civil War battles. In 1868, the city began efforts to secure designation of the Union veterans’ areas as federal property, eventually succeeding with a Congressional appropriation and recognition in 1898. Several years later, in about 1903, the Fitzhugh Lee Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument in remembrance of the 24 soldiers who died for the South. A memorial for local Union dead was added in 1909.
The grassy spaces of Oak Hill were embellished by an exceptional array of grave markers, finely executed in marble, granite or limestone. There were classically inspired Mausoleum with wrought-iron gates or heavy bronze doors, designed by local architects. The design of some mausoleums followed more exotic sources common to Cemetery architecture such as Egyptian Revival. Life-sized statuary dotted the lands and was a tribute of Evansville artisans. Towering above the other grave furnishings, and proclaiming the importance of those buried beneath, was tall monolithic pillars.
There are no Cemetery grounds buildings remaining from the early period of Oak Hill’s history. The present Administration Building, located on a knoll just below the southernmost high point, replaced the earlier combination office/residence building in 1899. Erected on plans prepared by local architects (William) Harris and (Clifford) Shopbell, the Chateauesque-styled Administration Building featured a central bell tower, a railed porch extending around three sides of the rectangular edifice and a porte-cochere on the east side. It’s bearing walls, constructed of Cleveland Hydraulic Pressed brick (exposed on the interior), and was faced with rustic Bedford limestone set in random courses. Windows had stone slab lintels and sills while the central entrance and the tower window above featured curved arches with moldings constructed of limestone voussoirs. On the interior, there were three rooms arranged on axis with the length of the building. Originally, the larger room at the west end was used as a waiting room, while its counterpart on the east side was used as the office. A small room in the middle of the building was once the chapel. Because of changing funeral practices and the popularization of the funeral parlor, the chapel has been converted into a two-tiered Vault room. This conversion was done at the expense of bricking in two, 10-foot-wide archways which provided clear passage between the three rooms. The interior appointments were in keeping with the robust style of the exterior. Walls were brick-trimmed with terra cotta moldings. Heavy, over-sized, half-glass doors surmounted by transoms, opened into the two end rooms, and a massive brick fireplace with round-arched opening took up almost the entire west wall of the trustees’ room.
Beyond the Administration Building, on the north, was the receiving Vault. Shopbell & Company, the successor firm of Harris and Shopbell, designed this small brick-walled building on Greek-temple lines in 1911. The front elevation featured a distyle in antis plan. Columns, entablature and pediment were clad with creamy terra cotta, and the roof was covered by green tiles. Double bronze doors opened into a small chamber containing tiers of vaults once used for remains waiting for burial.
There were two other 20th century buildings which bear mention. They are grounds buildings and were erected in 1928 on plans prepared by local architect Alfred E. Neucks. The service building was a one story rectangular brick structure enclosed by a green-tiled hip roof with a deep overhang. The roof featured round-arched dormers with circular vents. The east and west elevations contain large central vehicular bays flanked on either side by multi-paned coupled windows. The combined garage and implement building located to the east of the interment area was a long, low, one-story brick building with a hip roof covered by asphalt shingles. It contained three large bays to accommodate the grounds machinery. Originally, the plan included horse stalls in the south end of the building.
Oak Hill Cemetery was a significant feature of Evansville’s architectural as well as cultural landscape. As the product of mid-Victorian impulses, the grounds and other improvements of the site reflected the values and frame of mind of 19th-century Evansville. Its designers and superintendents captured the romantic moods important to city-dwellers in a total environment of greenery, walks, buildings, and grave markings. Popular local architects created buildings and mausoleums which were both functional and sublime, underscoring the Victorian’s urge to get the maximum benefit from their public works. More than simply the final resting place of prominent and not-so-prominent Evansville citizens, the Cemetery served as a vehicle for a wide range of cultural and urban events essential to an understanding of life in 19th-century America cities.
Oak Hill began simply. Its 1852 establishment was the response to the city’s outgrowing the earlier pioneer plot close to the village, and later completely engulfed by urban growth. The site of the Cemetery was barren of most vegetation except for tall grass and weeds. Access to the place was gained after a long journey from town, crossing railroad tracks and enduring the presence of two slaughter houses nearby.
In a short time, however, Oak Hill took its place alongside other monuments to civic pride. The variety of trees and shrubs planted and maintained by Sexton Goodge practically gave the Cemetery the status of an arboretum. The grading and improvements of walks and of roads and the steady expansion of the grounds through land acquisition reflected a widespread commitment on the part of the public. The erection of the Administration Building and other turn-of-the-century capital projects probably marked the high point of the Cemetery’s development.
The picturesque landscape of Oak Hill was a deliberate design judgment and public work which characterized 19th-century American park and Cemetery architecture. The genesis of professional landscape architecture nearly coincided with the founding and early development of Oak Hill in the seminal 1854 plan for Central Park in New York by Olmsted and Vaux. However, the longing for naturalistic surroundings can be traced well in the 18th Century and answered a theme common to most of the 19th Century, which is the search for evocative, romantic associations in the forms of buildings and landscapes, particularly as a contrast to urban realities. Oak Hill was intended as much for those living in urban Evansville as well as its dead. Early editorials supported the cultivation of the Cemetery as a place suitable for “a pleasant promenade,” relaxation, and reflective contemplation, especially for the “hundreds and thousands of our citizens who cannot afford the luxury of a carriage drive.” Like the city’s 19th-century waterworks on the Ohio, the improvement of the Cemetery was aimed at fulfilling a recreational as well as functional purpose. Oak Hill was there when citizens “became wearied with the sight of human faces, when the noise and bustle of the city grate harshly on the ear, when we feel an inward yearning for some quiet spot where we may rest in seclusion, undisturbed and alone.”
The first city owned Cemetery was a two and one-half acre area at Fifth and Mulberry created in the 1830’s. On August 12, 1850, the City Council created a committee to look for a new site. In 1852 fifty six acres were chosen about a mile and a half east of the city. The first burial was Ellen Johnson, age 2, on February 18, 1853.
The Administration Building was designed by Harris and Shopbell and built in 1899. It consisted of a chapel, waiting room, and an office. It was remodeled in 1917. The mission revival gate was also designed by Harris and Shopbell and built in 1901. The brown rugby brick wall was started in the 1920s.