Hello! Blogger Katie Willard here. I’m still writing about our “Welcome to Georgetown” series, but I wanted to bring you a special post about our “Tales and Tombstones” tour at Rock Creek Cemetery. I’ve always been a fan of visiting cemeteries, and Rock Creek Cemetery has a lot of history, beautiful sculptures, and famous names.
The story of Rock Creek Parish began in 1791, when John Bradford donated one thousand pounds of tobacco to establish a parish. Tobacco was a commodity, and donating it was essentially like donating money. Now, even though Rock Creek Park is huge, the parish and the cemetery aren’t exactly the things most associated with Rock Creek Park, like Peirce (not a typo) Mill or the Rock Creek Park Nature Center. The parish and cemetery entrance are located at the intersection of Rock Creek Road and Church Road, often abbreviated as Rock Creek-Church Rd. So you can see how the name came about, given that “Church” was already in the title.
Since the cemetery houses St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, one would naturally assume that the cemetery is a private Episcopal cemetery. Well, it was—until 1871. Fortunately, this change allowed lots of people of many denominations to be buried here, which made the tour all the more fascinating.
The first grave that we stopped at read “Evelyn Davis.” Strangely, however, there is no end date on her tombstone. Even stranger, it’s because she’s not deceased. Davis is “Queen of the Corporate Jungle”—according to her tombstone—and she lists each of her four marriages with pride. Perhaps having her headstone prepared is one way to make sure that her epitaph is exactly right.
Our second stop was to see Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s grave. She was quite the character of history, which may have been inevitable, since she was Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter. She was the ultimate wild child, long before any of the wayward teenage celebrities of today. She would run around the room while her father talked to high government officials. Once, an official remarked to her father, “Sir, you must control your daughter!” Teddy responded, “I can either run the country or control my daughter, but I certainly can’t do both.” She married Nick Longworth (of the Longworth Office Building fame) in 1906, and she used a Marine Guard’s sword to cut her own wedding cake. I could honestly spend an entire blog post just talking about all of the delightful Alice Roosevelt anecdotes. I’ll try to limit myself to her political acquaintances: She lived through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, but she wasn’t close with him or Eleanor, as she always identified with the Republican side of her family. (How were TR and FDR related? TR’s brother was Eleanor Roosevelt’s father, and FDR was Eleanor’s fifth cousin once removed. Short answer? It’s complicated!) Though she didn’t get along with the Democrat Roosevelts, she enjoyed socializing with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. She was always seated next to JFK at dinners, and she enjoyed berating Bobby Kennedy—and he enjoyed it in turn!
The name above Alice’s on the grave is Paulina Sturm, who was her daughter—despite the fact that Alice did not like children. They had a strained relationship, as Paulina found it hard to stand up to her dynamic mother. Sturm died before Alice, leaving Alice to take care of her granddaughter, Joanna. Although the relationship between Alice and Paulina was strained, Joanna and Alice were closer than ever. Joanna is still alive today, and she has a daughter named Alice Roosevelt Sturm—a beautiful, circular ending.
We stopped by the rainbow marble grave pictured above because of the sculpture behind it. The sculpture was done by Adolph Weinman, whose work can be found all around the city, like the friezes in the Supreme Court Chamber. The sculpture here is a woman holding a bouquet of turned-down flowers, a symbol for the transience of life.
Above is the Corby Family Mausoleum. The Corbys owned a company that mechanized bread-making. (What’s cooler than sliced bread? The inventors of sliced bread! Sorry, I had to get the corny joke out of my system.) Today, their company is better known as Wonderbread. So next time you make that peanut butter and jelly sandwich, thank the Corbys for giving Americans bread during the Great Depression and beyond. Also, does their mausoleum look familiar? The Corbys were huge fans of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
We explored the Lansburgh family history next. Gus and James Lansburgh were two brothers who sold things door-to-door. They were revolutionary salesmen, as they were the first to let unsatisfied customers return their items. They eventually opened a store that boasted some of the first escalators. In their greatest and most devious business move, they boarded the train to Baltimore right after they heard that Lincoln had been assassinated. The next day, Gus and James brought back all the black bunting that they could find, making them the single source of supply for mourners all around the city.
The “Call Me Henry” at the bottom of the memorial refers to Henry Lansburgh, a descendant of the Lansburgh brothers. He hated being called “Mister Henry” by customers, so he told everyone to call him Henry. This saying made its way onto his business card, and people actually wrote mail to “Call Me Henry”—and the mail carriers knew to deliver the envelopes to Henry Lansburgh! Henry was a very sweet man, the kind who would buy the products that customers had broken (so the customer would never be embarrassed) and give train tickets to WWI soldiers who couldn’t afford to go home.
The Lansburgh family’s department store lasted for 110 years. By the time it closed, it was the oldest department store in DC.
The Phillips brothers—Duncan and Jim—were inseparable. Even though Jim was older than Duncan, Jim waited until his brother had graduated high school so they could attend college together. At college, Duncan was horrified that his classmates appeared to know nothing about art (and this was the Yale University crowd). Their father, being a generous man, gave Duncan a $10,000 yearly stipend to buy art—but it had to be important art. Duncan took his art-buying very seriously, especially after his father and brother died. He used art to pull him out of depression, and he and his mother started The Phillips Collection together. Duncan’s collection was the first modern art gallery, and even Gertrude Stein scoffed at the idea of a modern art museum/gallery. In 1923, Duncan caused a stir in the art-collecting world when he purchased a Renoir painting for $100,000, an unheard-of amount to spend on a painting. He really liked the painting, and although people pointed out that he only owned one Renoir, he would say, “Yes, but it’s that one.”
The $100,000 Renoir painting. I have to say, Duncan made a good choice.
Duncan didn’t just buy from French painters. He also had an “encouragement collection,” a collection of paintings by new artists. He bought these to give the starting artists more confidence in their work. So Duncan was a really great guy, and now I want to see The Phillips more than ever!
One of these large footstones houses Davy Burns, one of the original 19 proprietors of the land that would become Washington, DC. When George Washington came to buy the land to build our nation’s capital, Burns clearly wanted to be known as the least cooperative of all the 19 proprietors, as his name is mentioned far more than any of the other land-owners in George Washington’s letters He haggled long and hard with George Washington and was paid the most per acre.
Alexander R. Shepherd did the most to make Washington, DC, what it is today. He was disgusted by the Washington, DC, of the Civil War, crawling with soldiers and prostitutes. He became the head of the Board of Public Works, and entreated Congress to give him six million dollars to restore the city to its rightful glory. However, the representatives became cranky when this restoration went well over the projected six million and into the tens of millions—22 million, to be exact. And he had only just started working on it! He spent a lot of his own personal fortune defending himself against the lawsuits filed against him, which claimed that he had pocketed this government money for himself. Shepherd went to Mexico to strike it rich, and, in a rare twist, he actually did by discovering a silver mine. He returned to DC with his wealth and reputation restored, and he went on to restore the entire city. He built over one thousand residences, and he added markets, parks, and saloons. He even managed to help out the town in Mexico where his silver mine was, and the residents of this Mexican town were so grateful that when he died, they carried his body to the train station that was eight hours away. While Shepherd’s body is in Rock Creek Cemetery, his statue and legacy live on in front of the District Building.
We weren’t able to get up close to the Walsh Mausoleum, which is out there in the distance. Vincent Walsh discovered the largest goldmine in Colorado, and his mansion in Dupont reflected that. It had 60 bedrooms (for a family of four) and cost $835,000—without furnishing! (For those of you who are wondering, it cost $865,000 with the furnishing.) One day, Vincent and his daughter, Evalyn, were driving when they got into a terrible car accident. Vincent died, but Evalyn survived. She went on to marry a man from the McLean family (they also have their own mausoleum at Rock Creek Cemetery), and between her and her husband, they had so much money that they didn’t know what to do with it. So in 1911, Evalyn decided that with her vast amount of money, she would purchase the Hope Diamond. (Yes, that Hope Diamond.)
Our last main stop of the tour was Henry and Clover Adams’ grave, where this famous statue sits. Henry Adams was a direct descendant of the two U.S. presidents with the same name. Henry Adams had an interesting life as a historian, writer, and ambassador, but we’re here to talk about the statue at his grave, popularly known as Grief.
Henry Adams’ best friend was a man named John Hay; they were such good friends that they built connecting houses on Lafayette Square. Henry was married to a woman named Clover, who threw parties that everyone wanted to attend because she refused to let in any politicians. After Clover’s father died, she fell into a deep depression. Henry tried everything to lift his wife’s spirits, but nothing was working. One day, she told him that she was feeling better, so he left the house. When he returned, she was dead. Now, I’m inclined—given the background information—to conclude that she committed suicide, but there’s still a bit of controversy in stating that. There are no statements from the time claiming that she killed herself (The Evening Star simply stated that she died of “paralysis of the heart”), since suicide was very taboo back then. There are still historians who claim that she had been murdered, although there’s no evidence to prove that.
Anyway, Henry is so distraught after his wife’s death that he leaves the country to travel “the Orient.” He came back with a renewed sense of spirituality, and he commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a statue for his future joint grave with his wife. The statue technically has no name, but Henry Adams called it Peace of God. A popular parlor game of the time was basically “Name That Statue,” and that’s how the name Grief came about: Mark Twain dubbed it so. However, Henry Adams never would’ve referred to the statue in this way, as he saw the statue not as an expression of sadness over death but of peaceful acceptance of death. The statue is reminiscent of Buddha, as the figure is “sexless and passionless.”
This statue clearly meant a lot to Henry Adams, as the only mention of his wife in his entire autobiography (told in the third-person, strangely) was in relation to Saint-Gaudens’ statue. The statue remains famous to this day because it was the first non-religious monument in Rock Creek Cemetery, making it somewhat controversial at the time.
Saint-Gaudens’ statue also has a connection to the Smithsonian, as the other cast of the statue is located at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. There was another (poorly made) cast copy in Baltimore, but it had to be taken down. However, the original and most beautiful is at Rock Creek Cemetery, surrounded by a marble bench meant for contemplation. (Eleanor Roosevelt enjoyed visiting Saint-Gaudens’ statue; it was the first place she went after learning about FDR’s death.)
I really enjoyed this tour, and I want to thank our tour guide, Jeanne Fogle. Cemeteries are peaceful places to walk and think, if anything. The next tour dates are sold out, but you can call 202-633-3030 to be added to the wait list.