Then and Now Photography of Laurel Hill

Every October is American Archives Month across the United States. Locally, there is an organization called Archives Month Philly that is devoted to promoting the awareness of historical records, archives, and interpretation in Philadelphia and the tri-state area. Their website is the go-to source for announcements of exhibits and programs occurring in our area every October in honor of archives and archivists. With COVID-19 shutting the doors to many public archives and museums, organizations have had to pivot from doing onsite programs to virtual lectures and exhibits. To see what is happening at a museum near you, visit their site here.

Here at Laurel Hill Cemetery, we have had to make a few quick changes as well. At the beginning of March, we mounted an exhibit in our museum called “Their Legacies: The Women of Laurel Hill & West Laurel Hill Cemeteries” and a week later we closed- yet to re-open. We put all that content into a “virtual exhibit” you can see here.

You may not have heard the term “Then and Now Photography”, but you have certainly seen it. An old photograph of a place is held up to align with the current view. In one glimpse you can see what it looked like then and what it looks like now.  One afternoon, volunteer Russ Dodge, took copies of archival pictures of Laurel Hill Cemetery out on the grounds and took the best perspective shots that he could. Then, Archives and Volunteer Coordinator Beth Savastana, worked some Photoshop magic and voila! You can now see the final products below. These pictures bring the cemetery to life with Victorian visitors and turn of the century groundskeepers busy at work making the cemetery beautiful. Along the way, we will reveal some fun facts about the subjects of each photograph.

The Gatehouse at Laurel Hill Cemetery was designed in 1836 by Scottish architect, John Notman, and built that same year. John Notman outbid William Strickland and Thomas Ustick Walter for this commission. The Gatehouse saw several additions throughout the years but the photograph used above was taken in 1916. The entrance to the office was accessible right on Ridge Avenue, while today, visitors must go through the arched gateway and turn right for the door.
Here is the full 1916 shot of the Gatehouse.
And one from 1927.
This photograph from 1964 shows how marble weathers over time, when compared to the two on the left, in the current day shot. Because of its beauty and extreme malleability, marble was used frequently in Victorian cemeteries. Philadelphia, and especially nearer to Laurel Hill in Manayunk and along the river, contained so many factories that air pollution and acid rain have taken its toll on our marble headstones.
This undated image from a stereoscope card puts ghosts from the past back in the cemetery at our Old Mortality statue grouping. The structure incasing these statues was built in 1838 and they have been greeting visitors who walk into the courtyard ever since. I wonder if the guests seen here would like the new rock garden that surrounds Old Mortality today?
Here is the original stereo card used for the “then and now” picture above. When a stereo card was placed in a stereoscope and viewed, the picture became 3-dimensional.
On October 21, 1836, Laurel Hill Cemetery buried its first permanent resident, Mercy Carlisle, in this lot. Here, in 1917, two gardeners are tending to grass cutting and shaping the ivy on mounded graves in Mercy’s lot.
Here is the full photograph from 1917.
That same year, stone cleaners were hard at work in another area of the cemetery, cleaning the stonework on the Linton property.
And finally, again in 1917, a stone cutter works to inscribe the William Welsh stone while his colleague cleans another in the back.
The Benson Mausoleum was the first to be built in Laurel Hill Cemetery’s Central section in 1868. In this stereo card image, possibly from 1876, a young man sits on the bridge that connects Central and South Laurel Hill, gazing at this beautiful structure, which, at the time, stood alone along Millionaire’s Row.
And lastly, we see the Receiving Vault, which hasn’t changed much, to be honest, and a small glimpse of a perfectly manicured portion of South Laurel Hill Cemetery. The Receiving Vault was used to store bodies when the ground was frozen in the winters and could not be dug by hand or while a family was waiting for their mausoleum or underground crypt to be built.
And the original photograph.

Do you have any old family photographs taken somewhere you know? Use this website source “The Craft of Then and Now Photography” to create your own!

If you would like to support the archives at Laurel Hill and West Laurel Hill Cemeteries, consider donating to the “Archives Preservation Fund”. Donations are used to purchase archival quality housing and other preservation materials.

We would like to give a special thanks to volunteer and tour guide, Russ Dodge, for taking the “now” photographs used in this blog article. Russ starting crawling through cemeteries as a young kid when he made the connection about history in a local cemetery that some of the people buried there lived while Abraham Lincoln was President and possibly voted for or against him. He first visited Laurel Hill Cemetery in March 1997 on his quest to see all the graves of Civil War Generals (to date, the number is 525). He was heavily involved in the growth of the Findagrave.com website, beginning in 1996, and was an administrator and curator from 2002 until 2020. He became a tour guide at Laurel Hill Cemetery in 2009 after several years pestering the staff for burial information and reciprocally providing them with biographical information for many who are buried there. He has run all sorts of themed tours on many different topics but is deeply interested in the military history buried here. In addition to running the annual Gettysburg tour, he has devoted much of his time to discovering previously unknown and often unmarked veterans’ graves, to have their service finally known and honored. He has brought to light over 500 veterans buried in Laurel Hill whose military service to the Nation had been lost or obscured. He has no plans to stop tour guiding and researching for LHC, as it brings him great enjoyment to be steeped in the history he loves to learn and explore. He lives in Lafayette Hill, PA with his wife Susan, who supports his endeavors and often joins him on his tours.

1 thought on “Then and Now Photography of Laurel Hill

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