Rock Creek Cemetery
201 Allison St NW, Washington, DC 20011
Telephone: (202) 726-2080
Size: 86 acres
Numbers of interments: 13,000 interments or more
Open: Open daily, including holidays, from 8 am to 6 pm. The office is open weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm.
GPS coordinates for the Adams Memorial: 38° 56’ 55” N 77° 0’ 32” W
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish, began in 1712 as a mission church. It is the only surviving colonial church in what is now Washington, DC. According to the church’s website, “The cemetery’s beautiful, park-like setting is now a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the world, who come to see the remarkable variety of monuments and sculpture and often to visit the renowned Adams Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.”
In September 1719, vestryman Colonel John Bradford donated 100 acres for the support of the church, which determined the site of the chapel. The land was logged, then farmed, and the proceeds supported the church for many years. Almost from the start, though, the area directly surrounding the church was used as a burial ground for parishioners. Some of those old grave markers still survive.
In the 1830s, the church decided to expand the area it used for burials and convert its land from farming to a public graveyard. Inspired by the success of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they utilized the natural rolling landscape when they laid out the roads like a rural cemetery. An Act of Congress established Rock Creek Cemetery as a burial ground for the city of Washington.
In the early 20th century, the church sold 14 acres of their graveyard for the construction of New Hampshire Avenue.
The memorial that everyone comes to see belongs to Henry Brooks Adams, a grandson of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the US, and great-grandson of John Adams, the second president. Henry Brooks Adams himself was a Professor of Medieval History at Harvard. His autobiography won a Pulitzer Prize, but he considered The History of the United States of America 1801 to 1817 to be his masterwork. After his wife Marian (called Clover) committed suicide by poisoning herself with photographic chemicals in DC, he commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to sculpt a monument to her. The statue is commonly referred to as Grief, but Saint-Gaudens called it The Mystery of the Hereafter and the Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.
I assumed that a world-famous memorial might be easy to locate, but since we visited on a Sunday, the office was closed. Church had let out for the day, save for choir practice, which I didn’t want to interrupt. After wandering for an hour – and admiring lots of lovely sculpture – we turned to the internet. The photo I found on Findagrave showed the memorial on a hill, facing away from the slope. We couldn’t find that view anywhere. The first GPS coordinates my husband Mason found led us back to the cemetery gate. Eventually we were able to find a map of the cemetery online that included section designations. The Adams Memorial is in section E.
After you enter the cemetery, head toward the church. Before you reach it, turn right. Down slope from you, you will see a family plot encircled by a hedge of cypress trees. You have to walk through the hedge to find the statue.
The cemetery has a wealth of lovely sculpture. These include Rabboni by Gutzon Borglum (sculptor of Mount Rushmore) on the grave of Charles M. Ffoulkes, a Washington banker who collected tapestries; The Seven Ages of Memory by William Ordway Partridge, on the grave of Samuel H. Kauffman, who owned the Washington Star; and Brenda Putnam’s statue of a child on Anna Simon’s grave. There are many, many more worth seeing.
Other famous burials include Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, Charles Francis Jenkins, the inventor of television; Abraham Baldwin, a signer of the Constitution; Charles Corby, the creator of Wonder Bread; Gilbert H. Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society; two mayors of Washington, three Union Army generals, and four Supreme Court Justices. There are also a number of family members of famous people: the father of Alexander Graham Bell, the grandfather of Douglas MacArthur, the sister of Edgar Allan Poe, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt.
My family took the metro to Fort Totten and then walked through the little park past the police station to North Capitol Street. That takes you to the back of the cemetery. One of the gates on North Capitol Street is open on Sunday mornings, when church is in session. Otherwise, you have to walk around to where Rock Creek Church Road meets Webster to find an open gate. It’s a hike and there are no facilities when the office is closed. You might be better off to rent a car.
The Fort Totten/Michigan Park neighborhood seems to be reasonably safe. People on Street Advisor warn against petty crime and robbery, but we walked all over without any trouble.
Rock Creek Cemetery homepage
The National Park Service’s page on Rock Creek Cemetery
A Huffington Post feature on the cemetery