Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Odd Decision by the Odd Fellows Cemetery

Mount Vernon Cemetery in Philadelphia certainly has a look of abandonment about it. Locked gate, shoulder-high weeds, statues peeking out from the trees. Photographers have been trying to get inside for years, but it’s just been next to impossible. The absentee-owner seems to fear publicity and resists any request for entry unless you want to buy a plot. How the people who have loved ones buried here (and that includes the famous Barrymore theatrical family, among them actress Drew Barrymore’s grandfather) tolerate the conditions is beyond me.

So it was not a surprise when someone at a local photography show told me a few weeks ago that there was a “condemned” sign on one of the buildings. (People always come to me with juicy cemetery tidbits.) So a few days later, I zoomed up there (31st Street and Lehigh Avenue) to check it out. I drove around the cemetery perimeter only to find the orange “Notice of Demolition” sign taped to the window of the gatehouse belonging to the cemetery next door, Mount Peace, sometimes known as the Odd Fellows Cemetery. 

A big old brick and wooden structure, the gatehouse seemed to be in much better condition than the actual inhabited row homes across the street. The sign said that demolition of the house would begin on or about July 31, 2012. The yard was dug up and “Caution” tape was strung across the front porch. The inside of the old house, which had been used as the cemetery office, was in obvious disrepair. A trailer sat in the yard, looking like the demolition work crew’s headquarters. (Here’s an old photo of the house on the Odd Fellows Cemetery website

Estate House at Odd Fellows' Mount Peace Cemetery, Philadelphia
From the Mount Peace website, a bit of history:

“The Odd Fellows Cemetery Company of Philadelphia was incorporated in 1849 when the population of Philadelphia was only 400,000. The original Odd Fellows Cemetery was located on Diamond Street, between 23rd and 24th Streets. Due to Philadelphia's population growth, in 1865 the Cemetery Company purchased grounds for a second cemetery. This 50 acre tract was purchased from an estate named "Mount Peace" and is located at what is now 31st Street and Lehigh Avenue. The cemetery maintained the estate name for Mount Peace Cemetery.”

One can assume the house was the original “Mount Peace” estate house, which means it was built prior to 1865. Though the house looked to be in great shape externally, what interested and concerned me at least as much as the house was the possible plight and fate of its surrounding ironwork – the black iron fencing, main gate, and “Mount Peace” sign. I hoped this would remain intact. Philadelphia is known for some truly magnificent historical ironwork, and this fencing must have quite an historical pedigree.

For intricate ironwork, the swirls on each side of the entrance pillars are nothing short of amazing. These and the wrought iron vertical extensions of the pillars (to which the cemetery name sign is connected) appear to be truly unique among Philadelphia cemeteries. I spent about an hour photographing just the ironwork.

The huge house appeared to contain the office, with a garage and extension off the back to hold construction equipment. I was curious as to what was going on so I phoned Lawnview Cemetery, who owns Mount Peace (also known as the old Odd Fellows Cemetery). I was told the house was indeed being demolished but the ironwork would remain. The trailer, according to the person to whom I spoke will replace the old house! Interesting how the company boasts "Historical Pride" on its website; however, I suppose there may be a good reason to wipe away all traces of the historic home.

Looking out cemetery gate onto Lehigh Avenue
A few days later, I posted a photo of the soon-to-be-demolished house on Facebook, and get a flurry of irate and incensed responses in the “How could they do such a thing?” vein. One person suggested I contact the Philadelphia Historic Commission and Preservation Alliance (for Greater Philadelphia). So I posted info on both their Facebook sites and received zero response. Quite a shame to lose this wonderful piece of architectural history.

References and Further Reading:

Mount Peace/Lawnview website
Read peoples' comments on Ed Snyder’s Facebook page