Adolph Strauch and Spring Grove Cemetery

B&W photo of a building with a cross at the top.
Dexter Chapel in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Clouette.

On March 29, 2007, Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio joined Laurel Hill Cemetery in Pennsylvania, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts, and Green‐Wood Cemetery in New York as one of few American “rural cemeteries” to be honored with designation as a National Historic Landmark. These cemeteries all share certain essential landscape characteristics, including a wide array of artistic and architectural marvels in the form of tombstones, monuments, vaults, mausoleums and sculptures, curving roads and pathways that tended to follow topographic contours, all manner of vegetation, including both indigenous and exotic trees (many identified as state champions for size and age), abundant shrubbery and a diversity of herbaceous plantings, lakes and ponds, and sweeping vistas.
As defined in the National Register Bulletin “How to Prepare National Historic Landmark Nominations,” cemeteries are one of several types of resources that typically would not be eligible for designation. However, NHL Criterion Exception 5 states that a cemetery may qualify if it “derives its primary national significance from graves of persons of transcendent importance, or from an exceptionally distinctive design or an exceptionally significant event.” Although there are many notable people buried in the cemeteries listed above, these places have been designated as having national significance for their distinctive design and the profound influence this had on future cemetery design and management, social attitudes toward death and cemetery usage, funerary architecture, and urban park design and planning.
B&W photo of an ornate building.
Historic Office in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Clouette.

Spring Grove stands unique due to the involvement and oversight of Prussianborn “landscape gardener” Adolph Strauch. Mount Auburn, Laurel Hill, and Green‐Wood, established in 1831, 1836, and 1838, respectively, were known as “rural cemeteries” and were considered naturalistic, “picturesque” settings that possessed the qualities mentioned above. In 1845 John Notman, designer of Laurel Hill, completed a design for Spring Grove, which was subsequently carried out by Howard Daniels. The original plan was for Spring Grove to develop as a rural cemetery, but over the next ten years it began to veer away from this intent, due to an accumulation of excessive clutter and lack of scenic uniformity caused by the whims and tastes of individual plot owners.

Appointed superintendent in 1855, Strauch convinced Spring Grove’s ruling board that if certain basic tenets were adhered to, the cemetery would successfully evolve from an undisciplined appearance and management approach to a new model, which he termed the “landscape lawn plan.” By assuming sole control and oversight of the design and management of Spring Grove, Strauch established a policy that may have initially met with some resistance, but which soon gave way to respectful acceptance. Strauch instituted guidelines that included removal of scattered graveside embellishments, private plantings, board and low iron fences, gaudy grave markers and headstones, limitations on visitors and sightseers, and bans on dogs, firearms, refreshments, and unattended children. He also set rules on the placement, height and style of headstones and monuments, oversaw all grading, planting schemes, and new construction, and orchestrated the overall unification of his desired effect.

The result was a resounding success. Spring Grove attracted thousands of visitors annually, and formed a distinctive template for subsequent urban park designs. According to notable landscape gardener O.C. Simonds, who later incorporated Strauch’s principles in his own work at historic Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, “perhaps no man in the United States since A.J. Downing’s time has done more for the correction and cultivation of public taste in landscape gardening than Adolph Strauch.” Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., widely regarded as the nation’s most influential pioneer landscape architect, stated that Spring Grove was a highly superior work of landscape gardening. Some 150 years after Strauch established his “lawn plan” ideology for this seminal landscape, its legacy and integrity remains a testament to his progressive ideas.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 2, 2007, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Geoffrey Burt.