National Historic Landmark

Grove Street Cemetery

Grove Street Cemetery Entry, 227 Grove Street, 1796.

Grove Street Cemetery Entry, 227 Grove Street, 1796.

New Haven's Grove Street Cemetery represents a milestone in the historical development of the cemetery as a distinct institution. Incorporated in 1797, the cemetery association was formed by a group of private citizens intent on creating a dignified and functional burying ground for the entire community.

Previously in America providing burial space had been a secondary function undertaken by the civil government, religious societies, or individual families. "During the later half of the eighteenth century, churchyards and municipal graveyards became the target of reform efforts in Europe and America...When yellow fever plagued New Haven in the 1790s, public attention began to focus on the city's over-filled public burial ground. A group of wealthy citizens rallied around statesman James Hillhouse to create an alternative: the New Haven Burying Ground. Founded in 1796, this institution operated as a private, non-sectarian Corporation."

The Grove Street Cemetery is also significant because of the architectural qualities of its Egyptian Revival enclosure and entrance gate. The gate is the work of the influential architect Henry Austin and is regarded as one of the country's leading examples of the Egyptian Revival style. Considered as landscape architecture, the cemetery illustrates the evolution of the American cemetery as a distinctive landscape: the rational grid of the 18th century, the Romanticism of the early 19th century, and the lawn-park ideal of the late 19th century are all in evidence.

Finally, the Grove Street Cemetery is important in the history of art because its monuments embody the distinctive characteristics of a number of different styles and periods of funerary carving. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000.

New Haven's colonial burying ground, located on the central common land that became the Green, was overcrowded and in poor repair by the end of the 18th century, when a group of citizens under the leadership of James Hillhouse banded together to create an improved burial ground. Hillhouse reportedly had been troubled by the deteriorated condition of graves both in public burying grounds and in family plots where descendants no longer maintained them.

Starting in 1796, he consolidated a ten-acre parcel of land at what was then the north end of the settled part of the city proper. He retained Josiah Meigs to plan a burial ground of several hundred plots, 18 feet by 32 feet, that could be sold to individual families.

Hillhouse was a prominent New Haven citizen, a lawyer, a real-estate speculator, and a political leader; he was a U.S. senator and treasurer of Yale College at the time of the cemetery project. He had in mind "a sacred and inviolable burial place... larger, better arranged for the accommodation of families, and by its retired situation, better calculated to impress the mind with a solemnity becoming the repository of the dead." The old burial ground, sited without much thought on the multi-purpose common in the heart of the city, would be replaced by a special, solemn place, set apart and dedicated to the memory of the dead. Hillhouse and 31 associates were incorporated by a special act of the legislature in October 1797 as the Proprietors of the New Burying Ground.

Although they were a private corporation, the Proprietors clearly had in mind a cemetery that would be a community institution. They specifically allocated plots in the cemetery to the two Congregational societies in New Haven and to the Episcopal Church, with other plots reserved for Yale College, African Americans, New Haven paupers not otherwise provided for, and out-of-towners who had the misfortune to die while traveling through New Haven. This pioneering private, multi-sectarian cemetery was paradoxically more inclusive than Connecticut's earlier publicly supported cemeteries, which by the 1790s had become closely identified with the established tax-supported Congregational church. Timothy Dwight judged New Haven's new cemetery "altogether a singularity in the world" and claimed that it astounded American and foreign visitors alike.

Perhaps it was inevitable that something like the Grove Street Cemetery would emerge in the 1790s, since that decade was one in which a number of specially chartered institutions were created to address perceived public problems; others include the first turnpike companies to improve the state's highways, the Connecticut School Fund to provide for public education, the Connecticut Missionary Society to Christianize western settlements, and the state's first banks and insurance companies.

Although the plots sold slowly at first, by 1814 enough had been sold that eight more acres were purchased and gridded for sale. In keeping with the cemetery's inclusive mission, plots were reserved for two additional church groups, the Baptists and the Methodists. Many families had moved their relatives' markers and remains from the older burial ground to the new family plots.

The creation of Temple Street, the erection of new meeting houses on part of the old common, and the articulation of the Green as a central public park made use of the older cemetery increasingly problematical. In 1812 the cemetery on the Green was closed, and in 1821 the remaining monuments were relocated to Grove Street. The Grove Street cemetery had reached its modern-day extents, though some land at the rear was ceded for use first by the Farmington Canal, then the New Haven and Northampton Railroad, and finally for Lock and Canal Streets.

The Grove Street Cemetery entrance gates are commonly regarded as one of the leading examples of the Egyptian Revival movement in American architecture. One of a number of exotic and picturesque styles that were popular in the first half of the 19th century, the Egyptian Revival was especially favored for cemetery gates, tombs, and prisons because of the association of ancient Egypt with monumentality and permanence. The first American use of the style for a cemetery entrance was at Mount Auburn Cemetery outside Boston (1831), but the Grove Street structure is regarded as equally important because it introduced the use of massive masonry (the wooden Mount Auburn gate was later rebuilt in stone), was more three-dimensional than earlier designs, and used more nearly "correct" Egyptian detailing based upon contemporary archaeological knowledge. The sloping sides, exotic columns, coved cornice, and winged orb ornament (a symbol of immortality) are all typical of the details derived from ancient Egypt. Although the design was finished in concept in 1839, the gate was not started until 1845 and took three years to finish. When completed, the Grove Street entrance was regarded as one of New Haven's architectural wonders and is believed to have been the direct inspiration for several other such projects.

The architect of the Grove Street entrance was Henry Austin (1804-1891). A New Haven native, Austin worked in the office of Ithiel Town (1784-1844) before starting his own practice. Through this association (both men served on the committee to re-do the cemetery) he undoubtedly had access to the best sources in America on ancient art and antiquities in Town's renowned library. In a long career, Austin designed many important public and institutional buildings in New Haven, as well as private residences in the Italianate, Gothic Revival, and Stick styles in Connecticut and elsewhere in New England. He is also notable for training many of the state's outstanding architects of subsequent generations. In addition to the entrance, Austin is said to have designed the monument for his own family plot at the Grove Street Cemetery.

The decorative details introduced by Austin for the Grove Street entrance were repeated in the cast iron gate columns and the brick corner piers of the enclosure. These are believed to have been the work of another committee member, Hezekiah Augur (1791-1858). Trained as a furniture maker, Augur built a reputation as a sculptor in association with a marble bust of Apollo that he produced with Samuel F. B. Morse. Subsequent works included a bust of Oliver Ellsworth for the U.S. Capitol in Washington and commemorative medals for New Haven's bicentennial in 1838. He received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Yale and later unsuccessfully attempted to manufacture an automated wood carving machine of his own invention.

Grove Street Cemetery is important because it is one of the earliest examples of the cemetery being regarded as a separate landscape with distinctive qualities, even though some of those qualities were subsequently changed. At least three important episodes in the history of American landscape architecture are discernible in the present-day appearance of Grove Street Cemetery. In its first incarnation, the cemetery was carefully divided into identical rectangular plots separated by roadways intersecting at right angles; the only plantings were Lombardy poplars, a species remarkable for uniformity of growth. The plan reflected the Enlightenment's penchant for rationality and order, a preference that was undoubtedly heightened by the rows of nearly identical trees, a planting scheme also used for the grounds of some public buildings of the period such as the Hartford State House. Although the poplars are gone, the rigidity of the original grid is still apparent in the parallel roads between the tiers and in the vestige of crossroads at the western edge of the cemetery. Such a grid reflected not only New Haven's own Classically inspired street plan but also the contemporary grid plans devised for Washington, D.C., and the Western territories. Although English visitor Edward Kendall was generally admiring of the orderly cemetery when he saw it in the early 1800s, he seems to have thought the uniformity was carried to an extreme.

The monuments in the Grove Street Cemetery capsulize the entire history of funerary art in America, revealing changes in both cultural attitudes and aesthetic ideals. The earliest stones, though moved from their original location, constitute a large and representative collection of early New England gravestone carving. They include such defining characteristics as the tablet form, low-relief carving, use of the winged figure as a symbol of the departing soul, and vine-like borders, an allusion to the earthly vineyard in which humanity labors and to the mystical body of Christ. The didactic intent of such memorials is also apparent in numerous grim verses and recitations of personal virtues.

The early 19th-century markers reflect changes in cultural currents away from Puritanism and toward Romantic humanitarianism. In place of the matter-of-fact inevitability of death, funerary symbols and inscriptions increasingly focused on emotional themes, such as the loss of the loved one and the grief that was experienced by the survivors, a trend evidenced by the willows, shrouds, urns, and mourning figures that abound in the Grove Street Cemetery. Another aspect of changing attitudes toward life and death is the greater individualization in 19th-century monuments. In place of the repetitive winged soul effigies of the earlier stones, a much greater variety of materials, forms, and symbols appeared. Remembering the departed individual as opposed to the virtues exhibited by that individual became more important; markers were made larger, more stylish, and of costlier materials, and inscriptions and symbols became more specific to the individual.

The funerary carvings in the Grove Street Cemetery reflect aesthetic ideas that had corresponding manifestations in other arts. The neo-classicism of the architecture of the early national period has its counterpart in the cemetery's urn-on-pedestal, obelisk, and column-shaped memorials. The eclectic, picturesque, and sentimental tendencies of Victorian art and architecture can be seen in the increased profusion of carving and other ornament, the more frequent depiction of cherubs and lambs, and the application of Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, and Egyptian Revival architectural details to obelisks and other types of markers. An evolution in the complexity of sculpture itself can be seen: the low-relief carving of colonial stones; the higher relief of early 19th-century urns, willows, and Masonic symbols; narrative tablets depicting occupational symbols or showing angels guiding the departed heavenward; and finally free-standing figures.


Explore New Haven’s historic districts and national historic landmarks HERE