The Taphophile Chronicles #2: Rock Creek Cemetery

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Rock Creek Cemetery

On September 18, 1719, Colonel John Bradford, a Maryland planter donated a glebe-or approximately 100 acres- to the St. Paul’s Church vestry.  The chapel and surrounding land became the Rock Creek Cemetery. This is probably one the most beautiful and compelling cemeteries in what would soon become the District of Columbia. An Act of Congress in 1840 established the cemetery as a public burial place, and since that time The Rock Creek Cemetery has become the final resting place for many of the famous people who shaped the political, social and business history of the United States.

Situated at Rock Creek Church Rd and Webster St. NW and bordered by New Hampshire Avenue to the East; The Rock Creek Cemetery is also not far from President Abraham Lincoln’s retreat home located on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home just south down North Capitol Street, NW.

Such luminaries as Abraham Baldwin (Signer of the U.S. Constitution), Montgomery Blair (Postmaster General in Lincoln’s Cabinet), Charles Corby (Baking Innovator “Wonderbread”), Julius Garfinckel (Founder, Garfinckel’s Department Store), Gilbert H. Grosvenor (Chairman, National Geographic Society), Patricia Roberts Harris (Secretary Health/Human Services in Carter’s Cabinet) Alice Roosevelt Longworth (President’s Daughter), George Washington Riggs (Founder of Riggs Bank), Harlon Fiske Stone (Chief Justice of the U.S.), and Sumner Welles (Under Secretary of State for FDR). 

The writer Gore Vidal, a long- time resident of Washington, DC, has had a plot purchased and monument placed for him by his long—time companion Howard Austen. Austen died in November 2003 and, in February 2005, was buried in Rock Creek cemetery. When the author Gore Vidal died on July 31st, 2012, his resting place was assured.  

Visitors frequent sculptures, such as the Adams Memorial by Augustus St. Gaudens, for it’s expressive and somber countenance. The sad story of Adam’s wife, Marian “Clover” Adams and her suicide are a part of Washington society lore. Henry Adams, the grandson of President John Quincy Adams, commissioned the bronze statue and had it placed on his beloved wife’s grave. Over the years the statue by Saint-Gaudens has incorrectly been referred to as  “Grief” by visitors and the press . Saint-Gaudens called it The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.

It is interesting to note that a famous statue that once was placed in Pikesville’s Druid Ridge Cemetery –also named Grief- was almost an exact copy of Saint-Gaudens statue by a sculpter named Eduard Pausch. Lawsuits and countersuits of the widow of Saint-Gaudens (who denounced at as a barbaric forgery) ensued and though the purchaser of the counterfeit bronze casting, Union General Felix Angus, won the lawsuit against Pausch the sculptor, he kept the statue in place. This counterfeit casting was named “Black Aggie” in popular Baltimore lore for it’s dark powers and tarnish by thrill seekers and frat boys who used the statue as a hazing rite. Over the years “Black Aggie” was imbued with mystical powers by the highly imaginative residents of Baltimore.  In 1967, after vandals had constantly defaced the statue, Black Aggie was moved to the courtyard of the Dolly Madison house at Madison and H st NW. (This story will be covered in a future column.)

Other incredible sites, such as the Kauffman Monument, known as The Seven Ages of Memory, the Sherwood Mausoleum Door, and the Thompson-Harding Monument are just a few of the examples of great and influential art that grace the gently rolling hills of this breath-taking landscape. A visit in Spring when all the trees and plants are flowering will be a memorable experience.

On August 12, 1977, Rock Creek Cemetery and the adjacent church grounds were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

  The Rock Creek Cemetery grounds are open to visitors daily. For more information please call:

(202) 829-0585.

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