A national treasure in our midst

View from Crown Hill looking south in 1875. Photo courtesy of Crown Hill Heritage Foundation.

by Thomas P. Healy

Midtown is home to Marion County’s second largest greenspace: Crown Hill Cemetery. A burial place for poets and politicians as well as criminals and crime fighters, Crown Hill is an exemplar of the Victorian-era rural cemetery, defined by American landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing as “a resting place for the dead, at once sacred from profanation, dear to the memory, and captivating to the imagination.”

John Chislett Sr., an English-born landscape architect who had designed cemeteries in Fort Wayne, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, laid out the plans for Crown Hill on several former farm properties outside the original city limits, at what is now 700 W. 38th Street.

According to Crown Hill president Keith Norwalk, the American Rural Cemetery Movement was a reaction to the U.S. puritanical view of death as macabre. “During the Romantic period death was considered very much a part of nature, and Crown Hill’s design had a lot of park-like space,” he said, adding, “We’re fortunate that we have many of the tenets of the movement here at Crown Hill.”

Established in 1863 as a place to re-inter Union soldiers buried in the city’s overcrowded Green Lawn Cemetery, Crown Hill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Its Section 10, where the Civil War veterans are buried, was recognized as a National Cemetery in 1999.

The magnificence of both the cemetery’s structures and the natural environment is celebrated in a new coffee table book, Crown Hill: History, Spirit, Sanctuary (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2013). Compelling color images by Hoosier photographers Marty N. Davis and Richard Fields embellish text by Bloomington-based journalist Doug Wissing, local philanthropist Marianne Tobias, Butler University Friesener Herbarium director Rebecca Dolan, and local journalist Anne Ryder.

In March, 2015, the book was named a SILVER AWARD WINNER in the Regional Category for Foreward Review’s IndieFab “Book of the Year” Contest. Awards were determined by a panel of librarians and booksellers from around the country, in conjunction with Foreward’s editorial staff. Representing hundreds of independent and university presses of all sizes, winners were selected from more than 1,500 entries in 60 categories.

The narrative celebrates the spirit of the place, which is open to the public for some uses. “We welcome the community to enjoy the space and to enjoy it in appropriate ways: passive recreation like walking, walking dogs on leash, and picnics,” Norwalk says.

He says Crown Hill is the country’s third largest single-location cemetery, with a maintenance budget of $2.5 million annually to cover landscaping, repair of the 25 miles of roadways in the park, and care of the 38th Street corridor medians.

Crown Hill is also committed to preservation of historic structures, many in the Gothic Revival style favored by Chislett. The Crown Hill Heritage Foundation, which Norwalk also heads, has invested nearly $10 million in preservation and restoration of historic buildings on the property, most recently the Gothic Chapel on the south grounds.

Norwalk affirms Crown Hill’s support for Midtown. “We’re very happy to be located in the neighborhood and are committed to assisting and improving the residential community.”

Save view in 2012 showing the results of thoughtful landscaping over time. Photo by Marty N. Davis.