By Mary Giorgio
Indianapolis’s Crown Hill Cemetery is the final resting place for some of the state’s most famous Hoosiers. The famed cemetery incorporated in 1864 and instantly achieved national recognition as a premier burial place. Today, the sprawling 555-acre site is the third-largest private cemetery in the United States and continues to be listed among America’s top cemeteries. The cemetery is also architecturally significant, with many historic buildings and structures and a Victorian landscape design that continues to charm visitors.
In the days before Crown Hill Cemetery existed, many of Indianapolis’s early settlers were buried in Greenlawn Cemetery on the city’s southwest side. By the 1860s, much of the 25-acre cemetery had been filled, and encroachment from industrial campuses left little room for expansion. Many of the remaining plots were used to bury veterans of the Civil War. By the 1870s, the cemetery was completely full and closed to new burials.
By the early 1860s, the need for a second community cemetery was evident. Led by James Blake, Calvin Fletcher Sr., and James Ray, a group of Indianapolis officials formed an association to select a new cemetery site. Rather than a utilitarian plot of land, the group’s leaders wanted to build a park-like cemetery modeled on a popular European style.
In September 1863, the group met with John Chislett Sr., a landscape architect and cemetery superintendent from Pittsburgh to discuss the details of their project. Chislett, along with horticulturalist Adolph Strauch, subsequently created designs for the new cemetery. Shortly thereafter, on September 25, 1863, the Association of Crown Hill was formed with 30 trustees. The association purchased 166 acres of land from farmer Martin Williams, the first commercial grower of strawberries in Indianapolis. The plot included “Strawberry Hill,” the highest point in Indianapolis. The peak was subsequently renamed “the Crown.”
Crown Hill Cemetery was formally established on October 22, 1863. To carry out their ambitious design plans, the trustees hired Frederick Chislett, John Chislett’s son, as the cemetery’s first superintendent. Under Chislett’s direction, the new cemetery began to take shape with the construction of roads, paths, grounds, and structures.
The new cemetery was dedicated on June 1, 1864. One day later, Lucy Ann Seaton became the first person to be buried at Crown Hill. The thirty-three-year-old wife and mother died of consumption. Her headstone was inscribed, “Dear Lucy, grant that I may meet you in heaven.”
In 1866, Crown Hill became the site of a new U.S. National Cemetery for Civil War soldiers. One-and-a-half acres were set aside for the burial of 700 soldiers who had been previously buried at Greenlawn Cemetery. Two years later, Crown Hill Cemetery became one of over 180 cemeteries nationwide to participate in the country’s first Memorial Day commemorations.
Cemetery trustees had envisioned a beautiful park-like outdoor facility, and it didn’t take long for the people of Indianapolis to embrace this unusual concept. Crown Hill quickly became a popular location for leisure activities like picnics and carriage rides.
Crown Hill has always been a place where the past and present coexisted, and nowhere is that more apparent than in its architecture. Each generation of skilled artists and architects has left their own unique stamp on the cemetery, starting with Diedrich Bohlen. In 1875, Bohlen designed the cemetery’s now-iconic limestone Gothic Revival chapel. Bohlen is thought to be the first trained architect to live in Indianapolis, and the chapel represents one of his few remaining buildings.
In 1885, Adolph Scherrer made his mark on the cemetery with the construction of a Gothic gateway and waiting station at the cemetery’s main entrance at 34th and Boulevard Place. The three-arched gateway was constructed from Indiana limestone. A prominent architect in his day, Scherrer’s most notable contribution to the Indianapolis landscape is the Statehouse.
In 1904, the prominent Indianapolis architectural firm of Vonnegut and Bohn (grandfather of Kurt Vonnegut) completed a gatehouse for the cemetery. A decade later, in 1914, construction began on another memorable feature – George Kessler’s brick and wrought-iron fence. The project was so expansive that it wasn’t completed until the 1920s.
In 1962, some familiar faces joined the many exquisitely designed monuments at Crown Hill: three limestone statues from the old Marion County Courthouse. The statues depicted the Greek goddesses Themis, Demeter, and Persephone. In 1985, artist David Rodgers of Bloomington, Indiana, was commissioned to design a functional sundial for the cemetery. Constructed of Indiana limestone, the sundial was installed in 1987 and has become one of the site’s most memorable features.
Along with its impressive architectural changes, Crown Hill has also seen expansive growth in its over 150-year history. Beginning with an impressive 166 acres, today the cemetery stands at 555 acres. Along with new burials, Crown Hill has also become a preferred site of reinterment for Indianapolis pioneers. In 1912, over 1,000 graves of Indianapolis’s pioneer citizens were relocated from Greenlawn Cemetery. In the ensuing years, pioneer graves from Rhoads Cemetery and Wright-Whitesell-Gentry Cemetery were also relocated there.
Today, pioneers, Civil War soldiers, average citizens, and Indianapolis’s elite all peacefully coexist among Crown Hill’s more than 200,000 graves. It is the resting place of such notable citizens as America’s 23rd President, Benjamin Harrison, three Vice Presidents, ten Indiana governors, United States Senators and Representatives, and countless civic leaders. Some of Indiana’s greatest artists and writers are buried there. James Whitcomb Riley was the first person to be granted a resting place on “The Crown.” A large monument marks his grave. Meredith Nicholson, Booth Tarkington, Otto Stark, William Forsyth, and Richard Gruelle round out the list of Hoosier artists and writers buried in Crown Hill. And lest anyone should think that the famed cemetery is only for the best and brightest citizens of Indiana, the infamous also qualify. Bank robber John Dillinger is among the many dead interred there.
Today, Crown Hill Cemetery balances the preservation of its cultural heritage with the needs of a modern funeral home and burial site. The Crown Hill Heritage Foundation was established in 1984 to take on the monumental task of preserving and promoting the cemetery’s historic buildings, grounds, and monuments. Countless visitors from across the country flock to the site each year to see the gravesites of famous Hoosiers and explore the pastoral atmosphere. It’s said that a day isn’t nearly long enough to see every treasure located at the site, but it’s enough to manage stops at most of the highlights.