From Garden Cemeteries to Levittown

Tracing the story of the American suburban form.

2 minute read

December 26, 2022, 5:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Gravestones along pathway in green Mount Auburn Cemetery

Mount Auburn Cemetery was built by the Massachusetss Horticultural Society in 1831. | vagabond54 / Mount Auburn Cemetery

An article by Emma Newcombe in Governing describes the history of the American garden cemetery, starting with the Mount Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston, built in 1831 as the first of the sprawling rural cemeteries popular in the late 19th century.

As Newcombe explains, the early 1800s saw an increase in the sentimentality of Americans toward death and memorializing loved ones with pleasant, art-filled gardens, coupled with public health concerns about increasingly crowded urban burial grounds. Mount Auburn became a popular recreational site, with close to 60,000 visitors stopping in annually, and “By 1865, the United States had over 70 similarly landscaped cemeteries on the outskirts of cities, including Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Mountain View in Oakland.”

The movement inspired a greater desire for urban parks and green spaces, with the New York state legislature setting aside 700 acres in New York City in 1853 that would become Central Park. Then, as the popularity of garden cemeteries and urban parks grew, developers started building America’s first planned suburbs, using similar principles to design new residential communities.

According to Newcombe, by the 20th century, rural cemeteries fell out of favor as maintenance costs grew and the Victorian fascination with death waned. Meanwhile, suburbs also became “far less picturesque and romantic than their 19th-century counterparts” as developers focused on cutting costs and building quickly, choosing “uniformity over picturesque asymmetry.”

Thursday, December 22, 2022 in Governing

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