“The Woodlands is still not on everyone’s list of 18th-century places to see and visit,” says Bala Cynwyd’s Jim Mundy. “But we’ll make it one.”
As board president of Woodlands Cemetery Company, Mundy works with the Woodlands Trust for Historic Preservation in ongoing efforts to stabilize the original 600-acre estate of Andrew Hamilton’s grandson, William, on the Schuylkill River’s west bank. Local investors purchased the core of the property in the 1840s, transforming the grounds into a rural cemetery that is now a resting place for more than 30,000 people. The mansion has been the cemetery’s funeral parlor, likely America’s first.
MLT: What makes the Woodlands so special?
JM: In Philadelphia, rural landscaped cemeteries were founded to relieve pressure on the diminishing city cemeteries as they were surrounded and swallowed by increasing expansion and industrialization. Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass., was the first such cemetery. Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, founded in 1836 by John Jay Smith, was America’s second. Woodlands Cemetery followed in 1840. Laurel Hill and Woodlands were so popular for weekend visits and picnics that timed tickets were issued for admittance.
MLT: What distinguishes Woodlands from Laurel Hill?
JM: Generally, Laurel Hill was the destination of Philadelphia’s industrialists and politicians, while Woodlands was for doctors, lawyers and financiers—new Philadelphia versus old Philadelphia. The Woodlands still has its three original components: buildings, landscape and cemetery. Laurel Hill, which still has its original gatehouse, demolished its other buildings and sacrificed its landscape for more burial space. With our new strategic plan, the Woodlands is changing its focus away from the cemetery as its main source of income and will reposition itself as an event and program venue.
MLT: What are the long-range plans?
JM: Through Fairmount Ventures, a new strategic plan and vision recognizes that the Woodlands is more than just a historic, landscaped cemetery. It’s also the largest open green space in West Philadelphia/University City and is a vital neighborhood resource that provides the amenities of a neighborhood park. Our next step is to create a major site plan that incorporates all three components of the property—landscape, buildings and cemetery—to help integrate functions and guarantee sustainability of all three.
MLT: Are there any influential Main Line folks buried at the Woodlands?
JM: Two important presidents of the Pennsylvania Railroad: John Edgar Thomson and his successor, Thomas Scott. Scott is the grandfather of financier Edgar Scott and great-grandfather of Robert Montgomery Scott, Philadelphia socialite and past president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
MLT: How did you get involved with Woodlands?
JM: Through Phil Price, who’s the great grandson of Eli Kirk Price, who founded the Woodlands Cemetery Company in 1840. Phil asked me to join the board in 2009. My name had been suggested by fellow Union League member and former board member Greg Montanaro, who lives just a few blocks away.
MLT: Do you have ancestors buried there?
JM: No. Mine are mostly at Holy Cross Cemetery, just a few minutes away.
MLT: What’s the lure of historic cemeteries?
JM: They’re the best places to learn and teach history because of the people buried there and the stories they tell. People make history, not buildings, and there are some amazing stories at Woodlands. Laurel Hill does the best job in the city of using its history and “residents” to tell the stories about the city and those who helped shape it in the 19th century.
MLT: It there a sense of community at Woodlands?
JM: We have a thriving, multi-demographic neighborhood around us where neighborhood activities happen—a place where families come for picnics and to teach children how to ride bikes. Neighbors and students from three nearby universities come to run, and people walk their dogs. Just this year, we held our first spring social and fundraiser in June. And last Dec. 6, we held our first Madeira Party to honor Hamilton by drinking his favorite liquid refreshment. He also liked his cigars.
To learn more, visit woodlandsphila.org.